“Why is it I like to control people? And when I do, I hate them. Sometimes I wish I was dead. Last night I got so mad at myself that I cut myself. I wonder what it’s like to die. Or to kill someone.” —an entry in Evelyn Heath’s diary
Film noir never ceases to enthrall me with its many shades and flavors. In its most recognizable form the genre conjures visions of crime in an urban environment rife with trench coats, slick sidewalks, and tough-guy wisecracks. Which is why I find a film like Guest in the House pervasively disturbing. We watch as a seaside domestic drama quickly spirals into a noirish psychological thriller. The antiheroine of the film is also not what she seems. Full of clingy hand gestures and breathy fragility, Evelyn Heath, a shrinking violet invalid, turns out to be an emotional vampire, wrecking a happy family as she grows stronger and healthier. There’s a reason why the original title for this movie was “Satan in Skirts”!
This rather unusual film stars a young Anne Baxter who proved that, several years before she played the girl-next-door who happened to be a sociopath in All About Eve, she already had perfected the role. Her mesmerizingly passive aggressive performance eschews the mannish assertiveness of an archetypal femme fatale in favor of a subtle, sickly vulnerability that’s much more dangerous.
Under treatment for a long (probably psychosomatic) illness, Evelyn manipulated Dr. Dan Proctor into wanting to marry her. There’s no denying it: the girl’s got issues. She listens to the same record of “Liebesträme” over and over, screams bloody murder whenever she sees a bird, and obliquely alludes to a hellish upbringing by an alcoholic father. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for her?
Hoping to speed up Evelyn’s recovery, besotted Dr. Dan decides to let her stay at the Proctors’ beautiful coastal mansion. There, his brother Douglas, a pulp illustrator, lives with his Aunt Martha, his wife, his daughter, and the model who poses for his drawings. Well, before you can say “fatal attraction,” the sly Evelyn has fallen in love with Douglas and resolved to have him at any price. The quaint oceanfront house quickly transforms into an inferno of suspicion and madness.
This well-paced B-movie directed by John Brahm does a beguiling job of translating the noir esthetic into an unconventionally cozy setting. From the first, when Evelyn makes her dramatic entrance into the house, the wide brim of her hat casts large spots of shadow over each of the characters she meets.
This clever use of low-key lighting visually hints how Evelyn will contaminate these normal, lovely people. She herself is a sort of “carrier” for dysfunction. At one point in the film, Douglas’s young daughter asks if you can catch a phobia from someone else; the adults confidently reply that you can’t, but Guest in the House suggests that a certain kind of neuroticism can indeed prove catching.
The homey décor of the majestic coastline mansion slowly acquires creepy and forbidding ambiance as Evelyn comes to exert her will over the household. After the “harmless” invalid sows the seeds of mistrust, the once-inviting rooms of the house change into theatrical spaces where someone is always watching someone, peering through windows or doors. Even the cute ruffled curtains contribute to one of the most striking images in the film—framing Evelyn’s raptor eyes avidly watching Douglas’s wife depart in despair, as a lightening storm blazes all around the house.
Director of photography Lee Garmes’s dynamic, neo-Gothic cinematography, full of Dutch angles and multiple planes of action, emphasizes the morbid mental influence that Evelyn inflicts on all those around her.
I recommend Guest in the House not only because it’s quite entertaining and tense, but also because it features strong performances from Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Warrick, who didn’t get as many chances to show off their acting chops as one might hope.
So, cuddle up with this oft-overlooked flick for a brooding, noirish B-movie melodrama that hits surprisingly close to home. Beware the vamp that doesn’t look like one…