Oscar History

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Oct 28 2016

Oscar Horrors: The Uninvited

Boo!It's "Oscar Horrors".Each evening we look back on a horror-connected nomination until Halloween.Here'sTim Braytonon a '40s ghost story...

The Uninvited(1944)  is a rarity among 1940s horror films twice over.For one thing,it's one of the vanishingly tiny number of genre films from that decade to receive Oscar attention,nabbing a Best Cinematography nomination – which is why we're here now,of course.For the other,it's one of the almost-as-tiny number of American horror films of its generation that actually commits to the paranormal.For years,stretching back into the 1930s,almost any time you saw a Hollywood film set in a haunted house,it was an easy bet that by the end of the last reel,you'd find out it was just an elaborate ruse by jewel thieves or some other damn thing.Not so forThe Uninvited!Its ghost is real,and presents a genuine danger.

The film's readiness to tell an old-fashioned ghost story without apology or restraint is undoubtedly connected to the recognition given to Charles Lang's deeply shadow-soaked cinematography.

Simply put,The Uninvitedwants to give you a nightmarish case of the creeps,and one of the primary ways it does that is by going all-in on a thick atmosphere of nighttime interiors,barely lit except for lonesome candles,or as close as the cameras and lenses of 1944 were able to get to "lonesome candles".

It's worth pointing out that the bravura nighttime sequences which surely netted Lang that nomination only constitute a short portion of the film's running time (this is,indeed,part of why they make such an impact).This isn't to say that the daytime scenes are deficient in some way.Charles B Lang,who received a record-tying 18 Oscar nominations across 42 years,was nothing if not a top-level artist,and every bit ofThe Uninvitedlooks gorgeous,with the dramatically overcast Cornish coast (played,persuasively,by central California) possessing a certain monumental Gothic sternness no matter how relatively bright things get.

But there's no question that the star of the show is Lang's facility for working in extreme low-light conditions.It's a phenomenal exercise in cranking things down to the slightest whisper of lighting,just bright enough that we can really tell how much we can't see.If nothing else,it's a technical achievement of the first order,with Lang showing off throughout how to use studio lighting to mimic flickering candlelight,gently and almost imperceptibly wavering the light's intensity to further the illusion.He even at one point attempts to re-create the briefly intense flash of a match being lit onscreen: the results aren't perfect,but it's a bold attempt.

That being said,this is much,muchmore than just a technical achievement.While it's probably impossible for a film from the 1940s to remain genuinely scary in the 21st Century,The Uninvitedcomes as close as anything else I've seen.The cinematography might very well be the primary reason why.This is an extravagantly atmospheric movie,full of dark rooms and huge swaths of jet-black shadow curled around the edges of the frame where the characters' meager lights can't reach.It is an exceptionally successful attempt to use negative space within the image to suggest things unseen and unseeable,dangerous and creepy things;it's also not above using the lighting itself in distorted,exaggerated ways to make things seem off-kilter in the best Expressionist tradition.

Is it,truly,"frightening"?Probably not if your age runs to double digits.What it is,however,is consistently and convincinglyspooky– you can feel the chilly,haunted emptiness of that house,and the sense of unearthly stillness in isolation that can make even an innocuous house seem like it's up to no good,when the lighting is just right.What we have here,really,is a campfire story: long on moody descriptions and the perfect accompaniment to a moonless autumn night.

Season 3 Oscar Horrors is a Wrap
The Bad Seed- Supporting Actress
Bram Stoker's Dracula- Makeup
Dr Jekyll & Mr Mouse-Animated Short
Flatliners- Sound Editing
Fatal Attraction- Film Editing
Kwaidan- Foreign Film
Misery- Actress
Pan's Labyrinth- Production Design
The Sixth Sense- Picture
Sleepy Hollow- Production Design
Sweeney Todd- Best Actor
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?- Cinematography

Season 2
Season 1

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Reader Comments (3)

Such a unique film for the 40's,a big budget ghost story.

Considering that it was a big hit and was quite a bit above the level of the standard Universal grade scare film,that was produced on the cheap and looked it,it's surprising that the studios rarely dabbled in bigger budget suspense like this for many years after.

While it's a great looking film it also benefits from two Oscar winners,Ray Milland & Donald Crisp,and another Oscar nominee,Ruth Hussey,in the main cast all of whom do good work.It also contains and introduced the haunting Stella by Starlight which was a hit and has become a standard over the years.

Fun bit of trivia: Cornelia Otis Skinner who plays one of the prominent supporting roles in the film had written a very popular autobiography "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay"which Paramount turned into a film directly after this which starred Gail Russell as the young Cornelia.Gail,who Paramount was grooming for stardom,plays the spotlight role of Stella in this.That film was also successful enough to rate a sequel called "Our Hearts Were Growing Up"again with Russell in the part.Both of those are pleasant if unexceptional period pieces.

Gail Russell had a very,very sad life.Paramount did give her the big buildup and for a brief time she was successful,her biggest hit outside of this was Angel and the Badman with John Wayne,but she suffered from almost crippling shyness and stage fright which she dealt with by drinking,eventually becoming a black out drunk and it destroyed her career.She was briefly married to Guy Madison but died at 36 discovered in her home surrounded by empty liquor bottles.Jane Fonda used her story as the basis for her character in The Morning After.

October 28,2016 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I love this film.More horror filmmakers need to realize that darkness is not necessary to evoke fear.Those night scenes work so well in the Uninvited because they are such a small portion of the running time.Shadows don't scare people;what hides in the shadows scares people.

October 29,2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Italian critic Enrico Lancia in his book about included GaIl Russell's perf in UNINVITED among Academy's biggest snubs

October 30,2016 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

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