Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel The Little Stranger, a critical and popular success, has all the elements needed to make a successful cinematic ghost story, including a crumbling mansion, a past that isn’t really past, and philosophical underpinnings that make it more than just a delivery vehicle for jump scares. The film version features an A-list director (Lenny Abrahamson) and screenwriter (Lucinda Coxon) plus an top-notch cast (Charlotte Rampling, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, and Will Poulter among them and excellent cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland. For all that, there’s something that just doesn’t work about the The Little Stranger, leaving it in the category of a worthy near miss rather than a truly successful film.
The story is as much about class as it is about the supernatural, with the kernel being the obsession of a poor boy for the great house where his mother worked as a maid. On a childhood visit to the house, he breaks off a plaster ornament and pockets it, so desperate is he to have something of the house for himself. Jumping ahead several decades, the boy is now Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), and he has a practice in the same area as the Hundreds Hall, the house which was the object of his youthful (and, as we will learn, continuing) obsession.
As Dr. Faraday’s fortunes have risen in synchrony with the modernization of England, so the fortunes of the Ayres family, who own and inhabit Hundreds Hall, have fallen. The eldest son, Roderick (Will Poulton), returned from World War I with gruesome burn injuries (conveniently covering half his face, giving the director a choice as to whether he wants to emphasize the character’s injuries or not in a particular scene) and PTSD, his aging mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling, who positively wears the hell out of a silk dressing gown in one key scene), and his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson, who gives the most interesting characterization, adding a subtle lesbian vibe to her role) who had to give up her career to help tend for the house and her family. With Roderick partially disabled, and without the crew of servants that they had 30 years prior, the house and grounds are falling to ruin, and the Ayres family doesn’t have the money or resources to reverse the process.
The house is no stranger to tragedy, the most emblematic being the death of Susan, first daughter of Mrs. Ayres, at age 8. In the present day, a visiting child is mauled by the family dog, and strange sounds and sights begin to appear in the house. As in the best psychological thrillers, ambiguity is maintained and rational explanations are possible (childhood mortality was high in the early 20thcentury, old houses make weird noises, and the tamest dog may attack if teased), but the strange events take their toll on the inhabitants. A way out seems to be offered, but it doesn’t seem quite right either, and the mystery of what or whom is haunting the house and its inhabitants is never explicitly solved. I have my private theory, of course, and you will probably have one also after seeing this film.
The curse and the blessing of horror films is that they need deliver a visceral experience to the audience—if you don’t feel the horror, it’s not working. That holds for psychological horror as much as for the type rooted in shocks and dismembers: slow-burning though this type of film may be, if there’s no burn, it’s just not working. On the plus side, you know if a horror film is working or not. If it’s not, all the discussion in the world about metadiegetic narratives and proairetic codes can’t save it; if it does, high-toned explanations are not necessary (although they may add insight into howit works). Still, even though The Little Stranger is not entirely successful as a psychological horror film, it still has a lot to offer the viewer in terms of cinematography and acting, and that goes double if you’re a devotee of “old dark house” movies. | Sarah Boslaugh