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Friday, November 21, 2008

The Uninvited and Its Great Symphonic Theme

I'm taking advantage of a rare opportunity today, and trying out something a little bit different. As some of you know, horror is not my only bag, baby--and, in fact, I have another blog entitled Standard of the Day, which celebrates the classic pop tunes of the Great American Songbook.

Predictably, there isn't too much of an overlap between these two areas. Especially not in recent decades, when the music of horror films has been of a decidedly different nature. However, one shining point of intersection is the superb 1944 Lewis Allen movie The Haunting, starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Gail Russell.

Possibly cinema's second-best ghost story--behind only the original The Haunting (1963)--The Uninvited is a classic haunted house movie, generating a unique mood of eerie melancholy that it's able to sustain from beginning to end. Unlike The Haunting, which opts for outright terror, The Uninvited has a sad, dreamlike quality to it that links it to some of the film noir pictures of the same period.

One of the devices used by Allen to create this mood is the film's theme song, "Stella By Starlight". In the movie, it's composed by Milland's character Roderick Fitzgerald, who plays it for Russell's Stella Meredith. It's quite literally a haunting tune that becomes much more than a leitmotif. Rather, it builds to become the driving thematic force of the entire film.

During the 1930s-1950s, it was extremely common for pop songs to be specifically written for movies, and then marketed off the movie's success and vice versa. Kind of a proto-cross marketing technique. Yet it wasn't common at all for this to be done with a horror movie. In fact, to my knowledge The Uninvited represents the only time this was done, at least successfully.

In reality, the song was composed by popular orchestra leader Victor Young. Although it has no lyrics in the movie, the decision was made to give it lyrics on paper, so that artists would be more apt to record it and make a hit out of it. Young's collaborator Ned Washington was brought in to do the honors (the duo had previously worked together on "My Foolish Heart"--which, not so coincidentally, can also briefly be heard in The Uninvited.)

Over the years, "Stella By Starlight" has gained so much prominence as an American pop standard that it has almost completely lost its association with the film from which it originated. In fact, it may even be better known--a possibility sadly supported by the fact that The Uninvited has yet to be released on DVD.

The Uninvited possesses something few horror films of recent decades do--beauty. It is a truly beautiful film, and its theme is suitably beautiful as well. This is why, although at first it may seem odd that a horror movie would feature a timeless American standard as its theme song, after viewing the film, you understand. Of course, unless you have it on VHS, you'll have to wait for it on Turner Classic Movies in order to do that...

For more on "Stella By Starlight", check out Standard of the Day.

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