Subtlety is often a defining element for a horror movie. There are thousands of bombastic, scream-in-your face features that take the intensity to 11 at the start and break off the knob; but those titles can be balanced by stories that are not so much about shrieks and scares, but instead sending chills down the spine. Both have equal merit, but also attract audiences on different sides of the spectrum: some don't go to the movies to feel like they've bathed in blood, and others don't have the patience for slow-burn. If you're a person who fits into the latter category, Lenny Abrahamson's The Little Stranger may not be for you; however, if you're tastes gravitate towards haunting mysteries about the depths and darkness of human desire, however, then this is a film to which you should sprint.
The work marks Abrahamson's debut in the genre -- the filmmaker in the past few years bringing us the delightfully oddball comedy Frank, and the powerful, Oscar-winning drama Room -- and what he weaves is a spectacularly atmospheric, engaging, and twisting tale that packs an ending that will have you talking for days. It's deliberate in its storytelling, and may not fully satisfy those who watch horror for the bloodletting, but those willing to invest in it will be immensely rewarded, as it's a rich cinematic experience that is sullenly gorgeous, challenging, and even surprisingly relevant in its themes.
Adapted by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel of the same name by author Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger transports us back to the 1940s in Warwickshire, England, finding a straight-laced, stoic doctor named Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) requested for a house call at a dilapidated mansion called Hundreds Hall. While treating a young maid who complains about the residence's dark energy, the physician gets to know the Ayres family -- a clan long past its glory days. Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) is the head of the household, as her mother (Charlotte Rampling) hasn't been entirely put together since the death of her young daughter, Susan; and her brother, Roderick (Will Poulter), wears both serious physical and emotional scars of war.
Having been brought up as part of the lower class and looking back at a single childhood visit to Hundreds Hall as a life-changing event, Faraday begins an obsession with the Ayres clan -- though that decision is heavily questioned. After all, it's family beset by enough tragedy to begin talks of a curse. Still, the doctor's fixation continues, particularly through courtship of Caroline, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly clear that something unnatural, or supernatural, is at play.
The Little Stranger plays with a lot of respect for the viewer and zero scenes with long, drawn-out explanations, but an attentive audience will get a great deal from the experience. Both Lenny Abrahamson's direction and Lucinda Coxon's script are filled with wonderful and carefully placed details that provide the necessary insight to navigate the story -- and while all of the clues are there for you to take in over the course of the runtime, it's all so artfully done that the ending remains completely unpredictable. It not only provides a wonderful shock to ingest as the credits roll, but it immediately causes a craving for a second viewing, so that you can see how all of those aforementioned details play with a totally different context.
The movie marks a reunion between Lenny Abrahamson and Domhnall Gleeson, who previously worked together on Frank, and while the two projects couldn't be more different tonally, one area where they overlap is featuring a tremendous performance from the Irish actor. There are links between the characters, as both are hungry for something that exists beyond their grasp, but what Gleeson brings to The Little Stranger is deeper and darker. It's a challenging part, as Faraday is taken down a complicated emotional path in his relationship with Caroline, but the star also focuses our attention with his underlying passion and shared curiosity in the larger mystery.
Part of what's great about The Little Stranger continuing Lenny Abrahamson's eclectic run as a director is that it's allowed him another unique aesthetic with which to experiment, and the gothic horror genre has allowed him, like with Room, to create something that is exquisitely and darkly beautiful. Hundreds Hall is a stunning estate with spectacular and memorable design -- an extension of Faraday's passion -- and on a broader level the film is gorgeous and transporting as a period piece. And while the larger approach is more about unnerving the audience than scaring, there are particular scenes (which I won't spoil here), that deliver an impressive and lasting shock.
Not everyone is going to be on board with it, but The Little Stranger is a film that you have to give yourself over to and live in. It's methodical storytelling, but also spectacularly rich and fulfilling, right up to its perfectly mysterious conclusion that demands further engagement and discussion. It's quiet and subtle, but it packs a great punch, and is a wonderful and different addition to the ongoing horror renaissance.