Guest post by Caleb Allison.
Paramount’s erotic and atmospheric ghost story The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944) sets up a salacious mystery before one sees even a single frame of the film. Who, exactly, is being uninvited and from what? Turning the film’s simple yet provocative title into an interrogative proposition leads us down a tortuous historical path linked to queer representation, the National Legion of Decency, and staunchly religious censorship codes. Posed as a question of representation, The Uninvited(?) reveals a subterranean cinematic system of coded gestures, suggestive framing, and vague phrases that hint, sometimes not so subtly, at a queer presence. However concealed and coded these devices may have been, they offered sustenance to an underground queer audience adept at searching the margins of the frame, reading between the lines, and digging under the text.
The Uninvited is a powerful example of a critically praised ghost story that became an underground lesbian cult film. Drawing explicitly from the popularity of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), The Uninvited turned Hitchcock’s ghostly atmosphere into an actual ghost story. The film follows Rick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) as they stumble upon a deserted clifftop mansion, known as Windward, on the coast of Cornwall with a history of illicit romance and murder. And if we’ve learned anything from previous cinematic estates grand enough to garner their own name — think Citizen Kane‘s Xanadu or Rebecca‘s Manderley — it’s not a good sign for the inhabitants. Enchanted by the place and blissfully unaware of its history, they purchase the home at a price far too good to be true — and they quickly begin to understand why. Mysterious moaning, a perpetually chilly room, wilting flowers, and temporary possessions are just the tip of the iceberg concealing a haunting family history.
Hollywood normally treated the ghost story with a strong dose of comedy or as a ruse or ploy to hide other criminal activity, but The Uninvited approaches ghosts with chilly earnest; they are very real and very dangerous to the living. The film still harbors its fair share of comedy, though. I’d even say the comedy mostly succeeds, largely because of Milland’s rapid-fire wit and charm, but his humor always seems to be the thin veil hiding serious unease. He’s been described as an existential Cary Grant and his performance here captures that sentiment perfectly. Ultimately, though, the comedy here feels more like genre residue, the persisting remnants of a past cycle that championed comedy over horror in a film pushing new boundaries of otherworldly terror. It’s in the film’s most haunting, stylized moments that it feels most grounded and self-assured. Having said that, you might still be expecting, as I was, some very hokey 1940s smoke-and-mirrors special effects. I’m happy to report this couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m not entirely sure how they achieved their special effects (possibly smoke and mirrors!), but when the ghost is revealed, it’s downright chilling.
Released in 1944, The Uninvited also marked the 10-year anniversary of both Hollywood’s earnest enforcement of the Production Code as well as the founding of the National Legion of Decency. Under pressure from proliferating municipal and state censorship boards and fervent anti-movie protests from religious organizations, Hollywood would adopt a Catholic sponsored set of self-imposed censorship rules, formally instituted as the Production Code. However, the Catholic community realized early on that Hollywood treated the code more as a loose guide than rule of law and rallied to launch their own internal ratings and censorship organization, the Legion of Decency. With millions of Catholics following their movie recommendations, the Legion wielded immense control over Hollywood productions. Their system consisted of an A, B, or C rating. An A rating meant the film was “morally unobjectionable”; B – “morally objectionable in part for all”; and the C rating was specially reserved for condemned films. The Uninvited received a B rating, not a dire outcome but not ideal either. The initial objection the Legion cited had nothing to do with its coded, queer representations, but for its depiction of a “spiritistic séance” involving a makeshift Ouija board. The official objection read: “The spiritistic séance sequence is so constructed as to convey impressions of credence and possible invitation to spiritistic practices.”
Despite the film’s B rating, The Uninvited continued to draw large crowds and grow in popularity, attracting the watchful eyes of the Legion who noticed an intriguing development. William Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at the time, received a letter from a Legion executive which stated:
“In certain theaters large audiences of questionable type attended this film at unusual hours. The impression created by their presence was that they had been previously informed of certain erotic and esoteric elements in the film.”
What the Legion was referring to, but avoided saying, was that The Uninvited had become a lesbian cult film. While the letter was vague about who these audience members were, it went on to describe in detail several scenes this audience was responding to, and all of them were scenes related to Miss Holloway’s (Cornelia Otis Skinner) relationship with Mary Meredith. Miss Holloway runs a mysterious women’s shelter and closely resembles Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers, played with chilly authority by Judith Anderson and Cornelia Otis Skinner alike. Holloway is called upon by Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) to help prevent his granddaughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), from returning to Windward, where she is increasingly threatened by its ghostly inhabitants. In Miss Holloway’s office hangs a nearly life-size portrait of Stella’s dead mother, Mary. In one amazing sequence Miss Holloway swoons over the portrait, recalling her intense connection to Mary.
“Mary was a goddess. Her skin was radiant, and that bright, bright hair. How this room brings her back to me. The nights we sat talking in front of that fireplace, planning our whole lives. It wasn’t flirtations and dresses we talked about. We were no silly, giggling girls. We intended to conquer life.”
Miss Holloway’s barely veiled confessions speak to the intimate relationship her and Mary shared, but there are other, more subtle ways the film reveals their connection. Nearly every scene with Miss Holloway reveals Mary’s portrait as well, not simply tucked away in the background as set decoration but framed as if she were present in the room, ready to jump into the conversation and defend her if needed. In fact, hardly a line is spoken by Miss Holloway that doesn’t refer back to Mary in some fashion. Even balanced framing is sacrificed in several compositions so Mary’s portrait is visible in its entirety, and in others she is framed as if she were alive and present in the room. In the still frame below, she is framed much like the rest of the cast, as another character in the lineup. The film’s precise cinematography links Miss Holloway and Mary Meredith as formally inseparable.
As the story reaches its climax it becomes clear Miss Holloway and Mary shared a dark secret and drudging up a traumatic past is too much for Miss Holloway, who starts to unravel. In a terrifying and cryptic sequence tangled with suppressed desires and dialogue that quivers with its own double meaning, Miss Holloway speaks directly to the memory of Mary.
“I’ve done what she wanted at last, haven’t I, Mary? It’s all straight now. There are no frayed edges, no loose ends, all straight, all smooth.”
The Uninvited provided fleeting moments of sustenance and identification for an underground queer audience, predominantly women, who cohered around the film as word spread of its treatment. As WWII persisted, many communities of women on the homefront were involved in war work, meaning they had more money and more independence. They created new lifestyles and found support and desires they had been denied before, and The Uninvited offered a glimpse, however coded and demonized though it is, of a queer relationship struggling to be seen. Clearly, to return to our opening query, Miss Holloway and Mary Meredith’s queer desires are “the uninvited,” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t show up to the party. Vaguely “erotic and esoteric” dialogue, suggestive framing, and a perceptive audience meant, invited or not, they would be seen.
Although The Uninvited has already screened this semester at IU Cinema, you can see this fall’s other City Lights Film Series screening, Leave Her to Heaven, on November 14, which is also part of the Sunday Matinee Classics: A Century of Tierney series.
If you’re in the mood for other spooky movies, IU Cinema has you covered! Our IU Cinema Under the Stars series includes The Mummy on October 7 and What We Do in the Shadows on October 14, both of which will be shown at Memorial Stadium, not IU Cinema.
Caleb Allison loves going out to the movies, especially when they are menacing, cryptic, or horrific. A PhD student at Indiana University, he splits his time between scholarly research and filmmaking. He has a passion for the look and feel of super 8mm and 16mm film and uses them whenever the universe aligns, and will watch anything by Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, or John Carpenter anytime, anywhere.