“THE LITTLE STRANGER” — 3 stars — Josh Dylan, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Josh Dylan, Charlotte Rampling; R (disturbing bloody images); in general release
“The Little Stranger” is a moody film that feels trapped halfway between two genres.
Based on Sarah Waters' novel, the film centers on a once-regal British estate called Hundreds Hall that has become haunted by a mysterious presence.
Set in the late 1940s, the story is told from the perspective of Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a doctor whose mother worked as a maid at Hundreds when he was young. Faraday now visits Hundreds to pay house calls to the Ayres family, who have fallen far from their celebrated status and have allowed the home to fall into disrepair.
Part of this fall is due to the untimely death of Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), one of the Ayres siblings Faraday knew as a boy — but enough bad fortune has crossed the Ayres’ path that many suspect a malevolent presence is at work.
The family matriarch (Charlotte Rampling) is frequently bedridden, and son Roderick (Will Poulter) is dealing with the battle-scars of his time in the Royal Air Force. Daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is still young enough to have a future but so tied up in the affairs of the family and oppressed by the doom and gloom of Hundreds that hope seems to have flickered out of sight.
At first through his medical services — and later by attempting to court Caroline — Faraday sets about trying to help the family get back on its feet, all the while witnessing more and more evidence suggesting the Ayres’ problems may have something other than bad luck to blame.
It takes a while, however, for this journey to evolve into what is ultimately a horror film. Even though a moody and glum atmosphere besets director Lenny Abrahamson’s film early on, “The Little Stranger” feels more like a dour period piece. But as darker and darker events begin to accumulate — especially toward the end of the film — “The Little Stranger’s” identity takes shape.
Even so, the best audience for “Little Stranger” is one that appreciates a little ambiguity. Abrahamson neglects to spell things out for his audience, and even the ending will leave a lot of interpretation to the viewer as to who the “little stranger” actually is.
Horror fans looking for a lot of blood and gore will likely come away disappointed. The film’s R rating barely feels justified and is most connected to a pair of quick scenes showing the bloody aftermath of mishaps in the house (in one scene, Faraday attends to a young girl who has been bitten by a dog, so that particular context might provide the rating rationale).
Faraday and Caroline anchor the film, and Gleeson once again brings the mildly stuffy presence he has mined in so many recent films. Wilson is particularly effective as Caroline, spot-on as a young woman just barely clinging to hope.
“Barely clinging” actually seems like an astute descriptor for “The Little Stranger.” Abrahamson’s effort isn’t going to blow your mind or rank among the horror greats, but it has enough strengths to be compelling for interested audiences.
“The Little Stranger” is rated R for disturbing bloody images; running time: 111 minutes.