The Uninvited (1944) Criterion Collection DVD Review: Who 'Ya Gonna Call?

The first American film to take ghosts seriously gets the elite treatment.
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In today's era of mishmash horror moviemaking - wherein there's a new Paranormal Activity flick released every other year - it's almost hard to believe that there was once a point in time when Hollywood, along with the rest of the world, didn't take the concept of ghosts likely. Nevertheless, it's true: prior to the final days of World War II, movies featuring "spooks" were usually contributions to the comedy genre - and nary an apparition ever turned out to be anything but a fellow masquerading as a specter as the film in question drew its own conclusion. But this all changed in 1944 when director Lewis Allen brought the world an adaptation of Dorothy Macardle's 1941 novel, Uneasy Freehold.

Given the much more appealing moniker The Univited, Allen's tale takes us on a supernatural journey into haunted houses, malicious spirits, spooky séances, and a completely functional relationship between two grown siblings that borders on truly unbelievable. The great Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play the brother/sister act in question, who happen upon a delightfully charming, unoccupied house resting quietly upon the cliffs of Cornwall. Before you know it, Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald have purchased the home from old Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) a local fellow with a beautiful young granddaughter named Stella (Gail Russell) - the latter of whom begins to fancy newly-arrived Londoner Rick.

The feeling is mutual, of course (what older gentleman doesn't fancy hooking up with a young lass?) - but Stella has another object of infatuation: the house itself. As it turns out, the seaside home happens to have a rather grisly history, which has made way for ghostly cries in the night, otherworldly aromas, ungodly chilly rooms, and the occasional malevolent treatment of the living. Sadly, no such terms where located in the purchase contract, so our heroes are only able to put together one piece at a time - since nobody truly wants to divulge the truth about the house. Alan Napier (Alfred from TV's campy cult classic Batman series) plays a kindly local doctor, and Cornelia Otis Skinner is a creepy sanatorium owner with her own secrets to hide in this eerie supernatural classic with better optical effects than most of those contemporary CGI crapfests Tinseltown produces today.

For the longest time, The Uninvited sat high on the prestigious list of Out of Print VHS titles many an online seller sought out upon entering a used video store. Now, thanks to the folks at the Criterion Collection, consumers can even less than what they would have on an old fuzzy cassette and get a way-better-than-analog look at the previously neglected Hollywood classic. The DVD of this title (also available on Blu-ray) presents The Uninvited in a 2k digital restoration that is indisputably beautiful every way possible. Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the movie is a crisp and as detailed as SD-DVD can be, bringing out the best of cinematographer Charles Lang's photography every inch of the way - while the monaural English audio is precise and clear. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are included.

Special features for this release that many a movie buff has been waiting to add to their collection for years include a fascinating mini-documentary on the title entitled "Giving Up the Ghost: Notes on The Uninvited" from filmmaker Michael Almereyda. Dividing his featurette into several chapters, Almereyda dives into the film itself as well as the oft-harrowing lives of stars Ray Milland and the doomed Gail Russell - even bringing in a cultural anthropologist to relate some 19th Century ghost tales to us. Also present here are radio adaptations of the story from 1944 and 1949, both of which feature Ray Milland reprising his role. Lastly, Criterion's release includes the original theatrical trailer as well as a booklet which is highlighted by an essay from Farran Smith Nehme.

Highly recommended.

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