The Little Stranger is cold gothic atmosphere that pushes the limits of expectations for horror

By Leigh Monson

   As anyone who has read Sarah Waters' novel can attest, trying to sell anyone on what exactly makes The Little Stranger so appealing is an exercise in restraint and, consequently, grasping at straws. Ostensibly, The Little Stranger is a ghost story, the tale of a haunting that pushes a family to the edge of breaking as the family doctor watches them self-destruct from the unnatural presence. And while that is certainly true, the post-World War II English setting frames the narrative as more of a historical drama, playing with notions of waning aristocracy and egalitarian change that seemingly would have little to do with the supernatural. I don't consider the novel to be a resounding success in terms of delivering its challenging subtext, but director Lenny Abrahamson (best known for directing Room) has translated the novel as honestly and faithfully as possible for the big screen, making for a horror film unlike any you're likely to see replicated in quite a while.
   Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a country doctor who always admired the gallantry of the Hundreds Hall estate, overseen by the Ayres family whom Faraday's mother had served as a maid. Now, as an adult, Faraday works his way into becoming the Ayres family doctor, primarily treating the war-crippled Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), but also attending to the needs of Roderick's mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling) and sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). As Faraday becomes more involved with the Ayres family, strange occurrences start happening within Hundreds Hall, leading to damage to the main building and injuries to the Ayres family and their guests. Though Faraday doesn't believe in such things, the Ayres family starts to suspect that a deceased family member may be seeking vengeance for the mansion's decline and disrepair.
   However, these phenomena are not presented in usual horror film tradition. Instead of jump scares and questioning glimpses of something just out of frame, The Little Stranger is content to leave the potentially supernatural linger as questions that could just as easily be interpreted as a natural deterioration of circumstances. A normally calm dog is suddenly spurned to violence, admittedly with provocation; a network of bells designed to call serving staff goes off on its own, explained as rats crawling along the wires; a series of cuts on a family member's body is ascribed to a mysterious malady or self-harm. The evidence feels weighted toward the ghastly but it isn't until the film's final moments that you are allowed the satisfaction of knowing one way or the other, leaving you to ruminate the collapse of a landmark of English culture as the family charged with its protection is forced to abandon it.
   It's in this messaging that I've felt the source novel never quite stuck the landing, and the film adaptation falls into many of the same pitfalls of never quite explaining why it's a bad thing for the aristocracy to crumble. We are supposed to be unsettled as Faraday is that this monument is falling into ruin, but his case is never more convincing than liking the pretty things and wishing that the pretty things weren't destined to decay. While there is certainly some commentary to be mined from how Faraday himself fits into this narrative as more than just a passive observer, how we are supposed to feel about Faraday himself, whether as an empathetic protagonist or as an unreliable intruder, is kept frustratingly murky. This is only further exacerbated by a remarkably dull performance from Gleeson, who only seems to invest Faraday with a singular emotion of calm detachment that feels overly distant from the drama he becomes steeped in. Thankfully, Rampling, Poulter, and especially Wilson are there to pick up the slack with nuanced turns across the board, elevating this from pat melodrama into a family on the verge of emotional collapse.
   The Little Stranger is, overall, a haunting experience, one that will stick with you by virtue of its gothic atmosphere and melancholy ending. It's not a great film, brought down somewhat by an opaque central performance and some distinctly English understatement of the stakes at play, but it's still a film that deserves more recognition than its limited theatrical release would warrant.

3.5/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.