Ah ghost movies. I always teeter with tales of the supernatural. I have seen some that I can so easily toss aside because they just go through the motions, but others just plain do their jobs. I think, for me, I can find a ghost movie very cheap. It'll be full of predictable jump scares, stupidity when it comes to dealing with the spirits involved, or a creepy girl with black hair (Netflix's 'Hill House' was the last time this really worked for me, and if you've seen it, you know why it works). But I think after seeing this I've come to realize that what I look for in a good ghost movie may be laying further in the past than I realize.
Taking place in 1937, Rick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey), open the film while a poetic narration takes place. The pair happen upon an abandoned seaside house when their dog chases a squirrel into it. As they explore the house, they fall more and more in love with it, and decide to make the move to try to purchase the property from its owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp). They manage to get it for a surprisingly low price, based on stories about its previous owners and potential "hauntings" to which they are both too skeptical to care.
Meanwhile, a young lady named Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), granddaughter of Commander Beech, is rather upset at the sale. Windward House (as the house is named) was where she spent her last moments with her now deceased mother who fell to her death from the cliff the house resides on. Rick soon becomes infatuated with Stella, which gains her access to the old place. However when strange noises such as sobbing in the middle of the night occur, accompanied by lovely scents, it becomes obvious that the house is haunted, and further details lead to a connection between the ghosts of the house and Stella. As the mystery continues to unfold, events get creepier and creepier, suggesting that perhaps Stella's mother may not be the obvious ghost.
As far as early horror goes, I found that there was something that stood out about this movie among so many others I've seen. It carries an atmosphere with it that's actually almost perfect. Music will chime in the odd time, but all in all, there's an eerily still silence to things here. That blends with the lighting they use, casting long shadows, and often having things by candlelight. For 1944, this was some pretty incredible stuff, and even today there's this genuine creepiness to it. This was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar, and let's just say it was well-deserved. They even get a ghostly apparition in there that looks quite good for the time.
The film has the distinction of being among the first films to feature ghostly hauntings in a dramatic sense, and its main theme of 'Stella by Starlight' has been adapted many times for its hauntingly beautiful sound. It has been adapted by several artists both instrumentally with people like Miles Davis, and lyrically by people like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles just to name a few. It really is a beautiful and classy tune. You almost feel like you need to open up a bottle of wine while having dinner by candlelight as you listen to it (I think Ella Fitzgerald's is my favorite).
In all honestly, despite perhaps some dated and corny acting here and there, this is one of the better haunting movies I think I've seen. For me, a haunting movie should be scary, but not just scary. There needs to be some sort of dramatic effect going on that makes the ghost more intriguing, and most of the time, I think we get that. But there have been duds all the same. This one does just what it needs to do for the effect it wants to deliver. It's eerily creepy but not exactly scary, and it seems to take the chances other ghost films up until this point haven't bothered to (although bear in mind, my knowledge of film back then is like looking at a library with 10 books in it). I still have some more first-time ghost movies to get through, but damn, this was really good! Hell, it even ends with a punchline.