You’ve probably seen dozens of gothic thrillers like Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger before. Once the wee-hour staples of late-night TV, they’re like the mothball-scented ghosts of horror movies past. Set in drafty, cobwebby estates usually somewhere in the damp English countryside and populated with ensembles of damaged eccentrics harboring dark family secrets, these classy-but-not-too-classy ghost stories were all about mood, atmosphere, and doors that creak and slam as thunder claps outside. There was even a great studio once built almost entirely out of them — Britain’s venerable Hammer Films, whose output seemed to consist of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing going mano a mano in a death match to see who could convey more frosty malevolence. But in the decades since the genre’s decline, the genre has proven hard to replicate, especially in our more explicit, in-your-face age of jump-scare Blumhouse fright flicks. Even the great Guillermo del Toro couldn’t quite get the formula right with 2015’s Crimson Peak.
The Little Stranger is too airless and derivative, with too many stretches of dullness, to resurrect the dormant genre. Only a few interesting performances occasionally jolt it back to life. You would think that a claustrophobic chamber piece like this one would be tailor-made for a director like Abrahamson, who brought an almost excruciating sense of suffocating dread to 2015’s Oscar-nominated Room. Yet the hairs on the back of your neck never stand up and salute the way you want them to. It’s a chiller that’s far too stingy with its chills.
The always shape-shifting and never uninteresting Domhnall Gleeson stars Dr. Faraday, a country physician who, shortly after World War II, returns to the small rural English village he grew up in. The place has less than idyllic memories for him. But there was one place that always possessed a sort of magic – Hundreds Hall, the sprawling estate where his mother worked as a maid in a staff that was just as sprawling. The place was the home of the well-to-do Ayres family, who had lived there for 200 years and whose seemingly charmed lives made him feel like a working-class kid with his nose enviously pressed against the manor’s leaded glass windows, dreaming of what it might be like to live there and breathe its rarified air. But times have changed now. Hundreds Hall is a crumbling ghost of its former self. And so are its inhabitants.
Charlotte Rampling, the clan’s imperiously frosty matriarch with a scowl that could melt glaciers, is being forced to sell off parcels of land to keep Hundreds Hall afloat. And her two children — Will Poulter’s shell-shocked and disfigured war veteran Roderick, and Ruth Wilson’s too-clever-to-be-cheery Caroline (who seems just as scarred as her brother, only on the inside) — seem miserable and stuck out of some sense of familial obligation. When Faraday pays his first visit, he seems genuinely shocked that this once-impressive family and its home have fallen into such decline. Still, something keeps pulling him back beyond professionalism. It’s as if, to him, the place never lost its luster. Roderick hints at curses and premonitions, but Faraday initially dismisses them as the paranoid ramblings of a tortured soul. But then, the first of several unfortunate events unfolds during a dinner party, involving a little girl and dog that inexplicably goes berserk. Part doctor, part confidant, and part wannabe suitor of the doomed Caroline, Faraday gets sucked into the Ayres’ dark and mysterious orbit.
As in Roger Corman’s classic 1960 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, House of Usher, the Ayres’ estate becomes a character in its own right. The spacious rooms with their fading carpets and threadbare furnishings often seem to have more to do than the actors. And with the exception of Poulter, who’s becoming more and more exciting to watch with each new role, it’s also the most interesting one. It’s certainly more alive than the start-stop romance between Faraday and Caroline, which is more the fault of Lucinda Coxon’s withholding screenplay than either of the performers.
As the film slowly progresses, we’re meant to wonder whether Hundreds Hall is merely a house of depressives lamenting their dying way of life or is there something more sinister and supernatural at work? But the title more or less answers that question. There’s no denying that Abrahamson’s film has atmosphere to burn. Still, by the time its restrained and unsatisfying climax rolls around, it becomes clear that ghost stories like this one need to either be ice-in-the-veins chilly or as red-hot as a glowing fireplace poker – and The Little Stranger is too polite to grasp for either extreme. It’s more or less room temperature from beginning to end.