File under “niche market” The Little Stranger, a very British supernatural period melodrama with more than a touch of psychological metaphor and just a dash of horror. While it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, it should appeal to whatever subset of the Downton Abbey crowd also reads too much Emily Bronte and likes their ghost stories without any ghosts to speak of. It’s a visually gorgeous and directorial virtuosic little film, but it’s also ponderously paced and questionably intentioned while careening across themes like PTSD, classism and toxic masculinity without ever really coming to a definite point. I can’t say it comes close to director Lenny Abrahamson’s prior films, but then, that can be a tough comparison.
The Little Stranger bears less in common with Abrahamson’s more conceptually offbeat early work — such as Frank or Room — than with screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s work on Guillermo del Toro’s underrated Crimson Peak. Coxon’s work here, adapting from a novel by Sarah Waters, is methodically paced and builds character organically, both apparently turnoffs to mainstream audiences. It must have been a problem for the studio as well, considering the extent to which they seem to have actively buried the film with severely limited bookings and a practically nonexistent marketing campaign.
But those who do manage to catch a screening will find a compellingly twisty story that plays its supernatural elements with distinctive ambiguity, right up until a final-shot reveal that may leave audiences with more questions than answers. The story follows uptight Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleason), a country sawbones servicing a small English village after World War II, including a family of faded aristocrats barely clinging to their dilapidated estate, Hundreds Hall. When Faraday is called by the mistress of the house, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), to see to an ailing young maid, he finds himself returned to a house he knew as a child and plunged into a family drama with an unexpected phantasmagoric element.
As Faraday treats horrifically burned and deeply troubled Ayres scion Roderick (Will Poulter), he also falls, not only for frustrated spinster sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), but for the manor house itself. This is where things get interesting, as the audience is prompted to question if the ghostly phenomena witnessed by the Ayreses are legitimately supernatural or if it’s Dr. Faraday who’s haunted by something decidedly more worldly. Abrahamson’s central cast is uniformly exceptional, and his setting is suitably creepy, but somewhere along its ample running time The Little Stranger seems to fall a bit flat.
Part of that might be chalked up to its lack of any genuinely likable characters, but it might also be that films like The Little Stranger just aren’t as common as they used to be. If The Nun is the 21st-century answer to Hammer horror films of the ’60s, The Little Stranger could be claimed as a direct descendant of contemporary high-concept prestige horror like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Is there still a market for psychologically complex horror films that don’t spell everything out for the audience? Again, the studio seems to think the answer is no, while I would argue the converse. It might not be the best horror film of the decade, but it’s certainly better than most of what’s currently clinging to megaplex screens, and it deserved a better chance than it got.