The Little Stranger | Lenny Abrahamson | August 31st, 2018
Post-war Britain was an uneasy place. Despite being on the winning side, they’d suffered great losses, both in terms of casualties and infrastructure. The Little Stranger, adapted from Sarah Waters’ book of the same name by Room & Frank director Lenny Abramson, is a Gothic horror tale set amongst that backdrop. While technically a ghost story, its mystery is veiled in layers of reality to a fault.
The once-prosperous Hundreds Hall, an estate in the English countryside, now sits in a decrepit, declining state. The “men of the house” have either died or been maimed by the horrors of war. A young doctor, Mr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), gets a call to the manor after the lone maid complains of illness. In private, she confesses that she’s actually in fear. Faraday is no stranger here, though, for he’s seen been in the house before.
Gothic horror really is a tricky genre to execute in the modern age. While every new medium is obviously derivative in some way, this genre in particular requires so many cues from its literary forerunner that assembling them for the silver screen is quite the task. Stories may well feature bloody murder, but most of the horror comes from a slowly bubbling sense of dread, forlorn feelings, and thrilling mystery. The Little Stranger achieves its needed atmosphere, with the decaying walls of the mansion brought to life with adept production and set design. A cool color temperature adorns its drafty halls, as the heating hasn’t worked in years. Recent Gothic horror films like The Woman in Black and Crimson Peak, while gorgeous, are far more artistically stylized. Despite taking place in 1947, the film pays homage to those periods by isolating its characters through the actual narrative itself. The modern technology of the day just hadn’t reached that far into the countryside.
Just beneath the surface of The Little Stranger is a deep exploration of British culture at the time. Roderick Ayres (portrayed by Will Poulter), the surviving son of the family, has been brutally disfigured during his service in the Royal Air Force. Suffering from both PTSD and the physical limitations of his wounds, Dr. Faraday helps him using cutting-edge methods. This common theme of old vs. new permeates the story: Geriatric party-goers unwitting about the advertising industry, the advocation of psychology and psychiatric treatment in medicine, women’s social independence, etc. Louder than all is its portrayal of class. Out of the ashes and rubble created by Nazi Germany’s bombing campaigns rose the British middle class. The traditional system of landowners and family wealth was largely eliminated by modern employment opportunity, off the back of the war economy, providing previously scant social mobility.
If you’re already bored and wondering if this is still a ghost story, you might exemplify the problem with The Little Stranger. Despite having so many solid conventions, good performances (especially Ruth Wilson), and harboring some disturbing moments, it isn’t exactly “scary”. It’s an alright mystery, but there is no rewarding payoff like most audiences would want. You might end up wondering why you spent the time.