‘What this house needs is a big dose of happiness…’
I’m a sucker for a haunted house story. Whether it be the melodramatic malevolence of The Woman in Black or the hysterical genius of The Haunting of Hill House, I can’t get enough of posh people flouncing across mahogany hallways being pursued by an unseen entity.
I also love the work of director Lenny Abrahamson, namely his breakout Jon Ronson adaptation Frank and his multiple award winning classic Room. The combination of a haunted house story with Abrahamson at the helm should be a winner.
A young boy with a fascination for a local manor house grows up into a village doctor (Domhnall Gleeson) who is called to the manor to visit struggling Ayres family. The rest of a talented cast is made up of matriarch Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), the frumpy Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and a disabled war veteran (Will Poulter).
The problem with The Little Stranger comes not with the acting or the direction, but rather, the characters themselves. I’ve got no idea how the Ayrers family and Dr. Faraday were presented in Sarah Waters’ novel but here each character feels thinly drawn and eminently unlikable. The Little Stranger shares this lack of a likeable protagonist with other Gothic horror stories such as Wuthering Heights and the aforementioned The Woman in Black. Domhnall Gleeson is a versatile and charismatic actor who ends up being completely wasted on the wet fart that is Dr. Faraday. Charlotte Rampling has little to do as the head of the troubled family and Will Poulter’s ridiculous prosthetics rob the character of any gravitas that could have been grasped. What’s the point in building tension and creating ambiguity when one of your characters looks like a cartoon monster from the start?
Liv Hill as the hapless maid Betty and Ruth Wilson’s enigmatic Caroline are the only characters who manage to remain interesting throughout the film and even then, it is impossible to describe either character as lived in or even believable.
Having said that, the cast do their absolute best with what they are given and the costumes and set design are fantastic, the house itself ending up as another character in the story as it should be with all decent haunted house films.
More than anything The Little Stranger is a gloomy film. It’s not something that can really be enjoyed. And that can be fine but there needs to be some kind of profundity and emotion for a film like this to really work and The Little Stranger doesn’t hit those notes often enough to really be labelled a success.
If you love the Gothic and period horrors then The Little Stranger will scratch a certain itch for you. Everyone else should probably avoid it.