Old ways die hard. That’s the crux of the understated disquiet—dread is perhaps too strong a word for the brand of haunting at the center of The Little Stranger—that malingers around the dreary grounds of Hundreds Hall, the dilapidated estate that makes for this film’s evocative setting. Class disparities during the transitional economic time of post-war England sounds like a better backdrop for a history lesson than a horror film, and indeed those expecting to be gripping their armrests throughout are likely to be disappointed—or already have been, given some unfortunately poor word of mouth—but the history provides a rather rich backdrop for this beautifully morose and slow-burning throwback to the Gothic horror films of the 1960’s like The Haunting and The Innocents. History suffuses every immaculately rundown room of Hundreds Hall and hangs over all the dealings of the dying aristocratic family that occupies it, a specter in itself.
The action, such as it is, kicks off when Dr. Faraday (played with eerie impersonality by Domhnall Gleeson) pays a house call to the nearly abandoned Hundreds. He is there to see to the family’s sole maid, a young girl who turns out to be playing sick because she’s spooked by the empty house. Faraday finds himself drawn into the lives of the three remaining members of the disgraced Ayres family who still reside on the estate: initially tending to the war wounds of the troubled Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) and then beginning a friendship with the unusually modern Caroline Ayres (played wonderfully by Ruth Wilson), both of whom are the children of matriarch Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling).
Though Faraday is ostensibly there to treat the people in the house, at times he seems more interested in treating the house itself—due to a personal history he has with the estate. He makes for a difficult protagonist to follow, as his rigid and old-fashioned demeanor is at once awkward and impassive, and throughout the runtime it can be a challenge not to yearn for more of the warm presence Caroline exudes. But if the hauntings aren’t enough to send your blood cold, then Faraday’s uncomfortable adherence to the dying ways of the past might do the trick.
In Gothic horror tradition, the house itself is the most indelible character here. Director Lenny Abrahamson allows the camera to linger over every decrepit detail of the sepulchral estate, and every room has its own unique flavor of despair. Faded wallpaper curls at the seams, floorboards groan with every step, and the whole house seems to have been leached of color and life. It’s not a home but a dead thing. Although one can’t help but yearn to see it in its former glory, much like Faraday himself, it exists as both a crumbling, anachronistic monument to a bygone era of extreme conservatism and a malignant tumor in the rapidly changing world around it. The best drama of the film comes from the often violent clashes of the modern world encroaching on this last bastion of a dying class. But, to quote Stephen King’s Pet Semetary: “Sometimes, dead is better.”
It’s fitting that The Little Stranger feels like a throwback to an era of filmmaking that no longer exists. It too is an anachronism, reanimated and thrust into a world that has no use for it. There are no easy answers or shocking twists, and only a handful of starling scares. It’s a haunting you have to be an active participant in, pulling away bits of wallpaper to discover a lingering rot; if you let it in, it may be with you for a while.