What is the scariest horror movie you’ve ever seen? It’s a question that yields radically different answers depending on who you ask. Do slasher movies give you the spooks? Does religious horror put you on edge? We’ve all got our specific horror triggers. For me, haunted houses creep me out the most. I’ve been terrified and obsessed with them since I was a kid. Maybe it’s the normalcy of it all. Houses are such an everyday, typically banal thing, that the idea of one being “bad” is more frightening to me than something explicitly monstrous. A haunted house is a betrayal. It feels personal.
I’ve seen so many haunted house movies I’ve lost count at this point. As a young horror fan, I devoured classics like Poltergeist and The Shining. (And yes, The Shining is definitely a haunted house movie.) I watched miniseries like Rose Red, splashy studio remakes like The Haunting, and ’80s gems like The Changeling. But it’s the vintage black-and-white haunted house films that scare me most of all. Classics like House on Haunted Hill and The Innocents, and especially the 1944 Paramount Pictures film The Uninvited.
It’s the ambiance. All that unnerving quiet, punctuated by wails in the night. The slick, colorless frames with that hint of ghostly silver. There’s nothing scarier. And there’s no film in that lexicon of black-and-white horrors that unnerves me like The Uninvited.
The plot is pure Gothic horror.
The Uninvited stars Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as the Fitzgerald siblings. Rick Fitzgerald is a music critic and composer who—along with his sister Pamela—falls in love with a mansion called Windward House in Cornwall. They purchase the home at a suspiciously low price from its owner, a man named Commander Beech (Donald Crisp). The reason it’s so cheap? Because the past owners complained of “disturbances.” In other words, the house is haunted.
But that doesn’t stop the Fitzgeralds. They move in and are at once in love with the home, and also disquieted by it. When they unlock the upstairs artist’s studio, they find it repellent. Pamela is turned off by the appearance and Rick is overcome with depression. A bouquet of flowers they bring into the room wilts and shrivels, and the fragrant aroma of perfume can be smelled. It’s an odd and dreary room that, despite its impressive view, seems to infect the rest of the house.
There’s also the matter of Beech’s granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell), who has an unhealthy obsession with the house. When the Fitzgeralds move in, they see her on the nearby cliff, looking up at the house. She appears distraught that they’ve purchased it from her grandfather, for reasons that are soon made clear. She believes the house is haunted by her dead mother, Mary. Mary was a noble woman who jumped to her death on the very same nearby cliff when she discovered her husband’s affair with a Spanish woman named Carmen.
The atmosphere is a character.
I won’t spoil the twists—but there are several. It’s a Gothic story full of arch elements, high drama, and deceit. But it’s not just the story that makes The Uninvited so memorable. It’s the look and feel, the perfect way it captures encroaching dread, and the ghostly apparitions that take the film to the next level. There’s so much atmosphere in this film, that it feels like a separate character. The black-and-white imagery is so dense you could cut through it. Windward House is both pleasant and haunting all at once. And the music goes from dizzyingly happy to arch and sinister in a moment.
The result is a film that feels accessible and also deeply upsetting. It’s nice to look at, but it crawls under your skin. And that only gets more apparent when the ghosts start showing up. And the ghosts are the scariest I’ve seen in any movie.
The Fitzgeralds hold a series of seances that summon the ghosts of Windward House. And when they show, they’re horrific. No, not because they’re gory or brutally detailed. It’s because of how simple they are. Just billowing white light against a dark background. But they wail. They appear without pomp and circumstance. They feel like what we’d really see if we stumbled on a specter in real life. Something amorphous and unknowable. And that’s most frightening of all.
The Uninvited is a revered classic
I’m not the only person horrified by The Uninvited. Guillermo del Toro listed it among the films that terrify him most. Martin Scorsese put it on his list of the scariest movies of all time. It’s available on the Criterion Collection, a revered distinction. It is a film that may not impress many young folks—used to jump scares and blood splatters—but I still urge them to check it out. It did a number on me a as a child. And I was similarly used to more vibrant, schlocky horror. It has a way of creeping into you. You might not expect it. But you definitely won’t forget The Uninvited.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures