The Little Stranger came and went in what seemed like a matter of days, pretty roundly disliked by audiences, audiences that were already incredibly small by mainstream theater standards, and only liked a bit more by critics. I think the movie was really mismarketed as a standard horror movie, while it’s really more of a brooding psychological drama with horror elements. Domhnall Gleeson plays a surgeon who returns to the small town where he grew up poor and soon finds himself embroiled with the decrepit family that live in the decaying mansion in town; they were rich once, the toast of the town, but they’ve fallen on hard times due to a series of tragedies that are only partly explicated. But maybe it’s the sorrow of the family that’s leached into the walls and makes the house feel so unhealthy and sick; or maybe it’s something else, something more supernatural. The performances are really fantastic in this movie. Ruth Wilson, one of the most consistently overlooked actresses of our time, is nothing short of phenomenal as the daughter of the family; she’s hunched over with care, socially awkward, trapped by her responsibilities and all of this comes across in her hunted look and her strange body language. Domhnall Gleeson meanwhile gives what is perhaps his best performance; his performance is minimal and locked down – his character is emotionally seething, but he can’t or won’t ever really say what he’s feeling and he hides behind a completely dispassionate façade, hides, I should say, as well as he can, which is increasingly poorly as the film progresses. Will Poulter seems miscast at first as Wilson’s brother, but he’s actually quite good; he’s been scarred both physically and mentally by the war and Poulter does a good job at capturing the abrasiveness that he uses as a defense. Liv Hill is also very good in a small role as a maid that can feel the foreboding atmosphere more than most.
The film, ultimately, is really very much about class. Faraday, Gleeson’s character, has resented the Ayres family because of their wealth and position in the community, but he takes no pleasure in their downfall. Rather, he’s still drawn to the markers of their superiority, even as tarnished as they are. A successful surgeon with a flourishing practice, he still sees their life as better than his, even in its decayed and sickly state. I found the characters incredibly compelling and the exploration of these themes to be very interesting and thoughtful. Of course, that isn’t exactly the stuff of a gripping horror film and if you go for visceral scares, you’ll be disappointed, though the film is atmospheric and often really creepy (and does feature one really effective jump scare). As well, I found the ultimate revelation of the source of the spiritual malevolence to be really disturbing. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that the movie spends a fair amount of time misdirecting you as to the source of the spiritual activity and the ultimate source is intriguing and something I don’t recall really seeing in a horror movie before. Abrahamson, of course, does have to gild the lily a bit with a final shot that makes explicit what the film has implied with its final scenes; I question whether it might have been a studio mandated addition. It might not be though; I’ve struggled with Abrahamson in the past, honestly. I think this might be his best film, actually, even better than the critically acclaimed Room. It’s certainly a brooding, haunting psychological drama, an intellectual ghost story that is an intriguing twist on the genre and it features a really, really excellent cast. It’s kind of a masterpiece really and one that’s stayed with me since I saw it in the theater a while back now. It’s meticulous, methodical and, if never really terrifying, ultimately chilling. 4 stars.
tl;dr – marketed as a horror film, this is more a psychological drama with horror elements; methodical, atmospheric & slow, it rewards close attention & features brilliant performances. 4 stars.