Let’s get to Windward House in a circuitous way, with a song: Stella by Starlight is a classic jazz standard, and it was recorded by a number of musicians, most notably Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, and it was part of the repertoir of both Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. I first heard it in the Caterina Valente recording.
And it’s always good to have an excuse to post some Caterina Valente…
What I learned only much later is, the song is part of the soundtrack of a movie.
A ghost movie.
Indeed, one of the first movies to present the supernatural as more than just a gimmick for comedy or a scam with a rational explanation. Stella by Starlight, the jazz standard, comes from a proper supernatural horror.
The Uninvited, set in England but actually shot in San Francisco, California and Phoenix, Arizona, is a 1944 film directed by Lewis Allen, that would go on to direct a number of other spooky flicks and film noir, and also a lot of television (from The Rogues to The Fugitive to The Invaders). The film features Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey (she was beautiful) and young Gail Russell, also known as “the Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica”, and would go on to star in a number of noirs, and a few features as John Wayne’s co-star.
Based on a novel published in 1941 and called Uneasy Freehold, the movie centers on a brother and sister, Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald, that during a vacation in Cornwall spot an old house along the coast, known as Windward House, and decide to invest all their savings and buy it; the owner is quite happy to accept a low offer, because previous tenants have mentioned “disturbances”. The Fitzgeralds dismiss the spooky stories and settle in.
Rick, a musician and music critic, starts courting the previous owner’s granddaughter (whose name is Stella … hence the song written for her), whose mother died mysteriously in the house.
But then the dog runs away, the cat is scared to go upstairs, and there’s a woman wailing in the night…
Things go downhill from there.
The movie introduces the main characters and the general situation, setting a lighthearted tone, in the first half an hour. It looks and feels like a sophisticate comedy. We are led in a nice tour of the house and get to know Rick and Pamela, happy-go-lucky middle-class people that can’t believe their luck in securing such a beautiful place.
There are hints, of course, of the horror to come, but when the “disturbances” start, it’s impossible not to feel a shiver. It’s the sound, the photography, the lead’s skill in portraying a sudden panic.
The Uninvited is a solid, chilly ghost story – perfectly suited for the season.
Considering is over 75 years old, it still holds up nicely – even the special effects are still convincing.
A seance scene is particularly chilling, but to me nothing beats the early scare on the staircase in the night.
I came to it out of curiosity, following the song, and feeling a mild curiosity for the film’s historical significance – one of the first proper supernatural horrors – but in the end stayed for the quality of the writing and direction, and for the excellent performances of the leads.