Sunday, November 3, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Lewis Allen's The Uninvited [Criterion]


The Uninvited begins in stately fashion, with a long shot of the Cornish coast smoothly panning to reveal a lone house perched cliffside. In demure voiceover, Roderick "Rick" Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) set the scene: These shores have a history, and though Rick and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey), don't know it yet, their futures are inextricably linked to the vast transgressions of the property's past. And yet Rick's vocal demeanor belies little of the impending intrigue; indeed, if it wasn't for his grave reminiscence, there would be little in the film's opening sequences to foreshadow the ghastly events which the siblings will trigger when they proceed with what they assume is a traditional, if curiously reasonable, real estate transaction. It's this unassuming, almost genteel, poise that underlines the otherwise knotty narrative canvas of The Uninvited, an early example of earnest Hollywood horror sympathetic to the psychologies of its characters both alive and long since deceased.

This is an uncommonly stoic thriller, adapted from a novel by Dorothy Macardle and directed by English journeyman Lewis Allen, that pits the past against the present in a manner unique for its era. Nominally a ghost story, though with none of the ghoulish representations familiar from concurrent studio product, The Uninvited is instead a more internalized drama, with much of the horror enacted by mere mortals with ulterior motives and repressed passions. One of the unsolicited apparitions of the film's title is in fact a rather benevolent being—or at least a spirit with a specific cause, her nascent manifestations an attempt at squaring a bygone tragedy with the subsequent emotional distress imparted upon Stella (Gail Russell), daughter of the departed whose own personal history has been pieced together secondhand courtesy of the family's stern patriarch, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp). But when Beech all but bestows his long abandoned property on Rick and Pamela, this prompts his granddaughter to befriend the siblings in an effort at finally uncovering her past and reconciling with her mother, who quite literally haunts her every waking move.

Allen's sparse compositional sense and carefully choreographed sequences of verbally fueled dramatics—both perhaps inherited from his time as a theater director—emphasize space, depth, and the blocking of the actors within otherwise architecturally elaborate frames. The film (incredibly enough, Allen's first as a feature filmmaker) is, above all, an aesthetic wonder. Yes, the cinematography, by Charles Lang Jr., is rightly regarded as one of the greatest achievements the genre has seen, but there are other less celebrated stylistic gestures which contribute equally to the film's overriding sense of eloquent unrest. Victor Young's score, for one, is a wave of simmering romantic tension in its own right, while the art and set direction is evocative in its antiquated grandiloquence. It's Allen's resourceful employment of practical effects, however, that has rendered the film relatively untouched by time; with little more than deep shadows spilling forth in candle-lit chambers, gusts of wind spiraling down vacated corridors, shafts of white light dividing planes of perspective, and the rare appearance of shape-shifting, chiaroscuro spirits in smoky plumes, Allen is able to conjure his own metaphysical dramaturgy via largely elemental means.

But then it's also important to note the human element of the film, which is crucial in translating so many of its intangible aspects. Milland, outfitted in polyester Jimmy Stewart ensembles and in his best Cary Grant drawl, turns Rick's underachieving composer into not only a plausible but worthwhile catch for Stella, who's own paranoia somehow eventually engenders sympathy, due at least in part to Russell's well documented, crippling anxiety, which she would seek to ease with alcohol before tragically succumbing to liver damage at age 36. Hussey and Crisp, meanwhile, are both calming and suspicious in their respective presences before ceding the spotlight to their co-stars—and to one in particular, Cornelia Otis Skinner, in a late-film appearance as Miss Holloway, who may hold the final key to unlocking the mysteries of the mansion. In the spirit of true collaboration, and in Allen, his cast, and his crew's thoughtful consideration of their subject matter, The Uninvited would prove far greater than the sum of its parts. In more than one sense, it remains one of Hollywood's most lasting enigmas.

Image/Sound:
Criterion's new Blu-ray of Lewis Allen's The Uninvited marks not only the film's high-definition debut, but also its arrival on Region 1 digital formats. Picture quality is outstanding, as heavy grain bathes each frame without sacrificing detail or losing too much in the way of clarity. Charles Lang Jr.'s cinematography is well represented with pitch-perfect contrast and nary an artifact left to obstruct viewing. It looks very film-like, betraying no evidence of digital manipulation. Audio, meanwhile, is kept authentic with a linear PCM mono track handling both the moody score and intricate sound design with equal aplomb. Tonally, the mix sounds adequately balanced without being overly demonstrative, while dialogue comes through clean and clear with little extraneous noise that can understandably hamper productions from this period.

Extras:
Supplements are somewhat slim considering the film's reputation. The 26-minute visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, however, is appropriately laudatory, and a vastly informative contextual and stylistic study, flitting between personal meditation, psychological inquiry, and historical reconciliation. Two concurrent radio adaptations starring Ray Milland and an original trailer pad out the digital offerings, while a typically handsome booklet featuring a 1997 interview with Allen and an essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme round out the physical package.

Overall:
One of Hollywood's most lasting enigmas, Lewis Allen's 1944 familial horror tale remains both stately and stoic, an aesthetic wonder far greater than the sum of its parts. [Slant]

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