It's a lovely old horror movie, made by Paramount in the era of Val Lewton and Universal. It's capable of being scarier than you'd expect in something of its vintage, but the main thing you'll remember is its lightness and its light wit.
The story: Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey buy a haunted house, called Windward House. They're siblings, by the way, not a married couple. The house is on a clifftop on the English coast, it's gorgeous and the owner (Donald Crisp) is willing to sell it for peanuts. They move in, discover that the place has "disturbances" and treat the whole thing in a down-to-earth manner. They don't get hysterical, they don't go into denial and for the most part they seem to treat suddenly freezing rooms, crying voices in the night and terrified pets and housekeepers as just another domestic feature, like rising damp or bindweed in the garden.
However Crisp and his granddaughter (Barbara Everest) haven't severed their ties with Windward House. Skinner's mother died there and Everest is drawn to the place... or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the place is drawn to her.
This material could have been heavy, yet it's light. The characters are likeable, even the Crisp/Everest family and their tendencies to high-handedness. They'll make your decisions for you, if necessary overruling the truth to do so. "If I'd ever been reasoned with, I might have been a better child." Milland is whimsical and gently flippant about everything, but without being a dick about it. He gets a fair amount of comedy business. Meanwhile Hussey is practical and sympathetic. It's fun being with them. This is just as much a romantic comedy as it is a horror film, despite the fact that it's a much-admired example of the latter. Guillermo del Toro and Martin Scorsese have both rated it among the best of its genre.
Many horror movies are oppressive. This one manages to be light and amusing, without undermining its ghosts or the menace to life and limb.
Only one thing struck me as sub-par and even that's no deal-breaker. The acting's not what it could have been. This is odd because in other departments the film's excellent, getting an Oscar nomination for Charles Lang's cinematography and nearly earning another for Victor Young's incidental music. One doesn't expect second-rate acting in something this classy, but there you have it. They're still okay, mind you. They don't prevent the film from being excellent. They simply fail to rise above that level. No one gets away unscathed, although Alan Napier gets close. Of the two leads, Milland and Hussey never particularly struck me as siblings and they're not hitting the notes they might have in their line delivery either. Milland fails to milk some of his comedy opportunities and is particularly poor in his opening voice-over monologue, which ignores transitions and makes it hard to follow the sense of a perfectly unremarkable speech. Meanwhile Ivan F. Simpson has a cameo with his accent tied around his ankles. Worst though is arguably Crisp, who could barely be said to be at half-strength. "Yes, yes, I know that" is one of the rare lines here that would jump out as bad even to people in the audience who didn't care about acting.
Barbara Everest is adorable, mind you. She has wonderful doe eyes and her performance would have been impeccable if it hadn't been for her accent. The weirdest thing about this is that in real life, Everest was British! There's also an eccentric cameo from Dorothy Stickney, which I loved and is one of the most eye-catching things in the film.
Overall, they're endearing. Even when the cast don't have it together technically, they're getting the tone right. Milland is charming, while Everest will make you want to reach into the film and hug her. Everything and everyone's combining to make the film lightweight and pleasant.
Oh, and is it just me or Cornelia Otis Skinner does look like Frances McDormand? It's also just about possible to read filthy subtext into the Milland-Hussey relationship, if you really work at it. "No, on second thoughts my landing gear isn't what it used to be." "I'll toss you for the bedroom with the best view." Besides, is it just me or is "Listen, dear" someone one wouldn't normally say to one's sister?
The spooky stuff is delicate, with a Val Lewton influence. They hadn't been going to show the ghost at all, but Paramount got nervous and insisted on some money shots. Interestingly, these work. I think a ghost story can be devilishly hard to get right, but this pulls it off well and intelligently. It's based on a novel, it was later adapted into two radio plays (both also starring Milland) and it's often compared with Hitchcock's Rebecca, which had come out four years earlier. I can see the similarities.
This isn't the kind of film that strikes you immediately as a classic. It's not heavyweight. It's fun and funny. However it goes down smoothly, it's always entertaining and it somehow slips a genuinely scary ghost story in there too. I jumped, but the last line made me laugh. It's worth hunting down.