The Little Stranger lacks the life that makes a truly great horror film

It’s creepy and claustrophobic, but a depressing and bitter lead (Domhnall Gleeson) robs  the film of the electrical charge vital for fully effective horror.

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The versatile Irish director Lenny Abrahamson received an Oscar nomination for his attentive film of Emma Donoghue’s Room. With The Little Stranger (another adaptation of a Booker-shortlisted novel, this one by Sarah Waters) he has graduated from a room to an entire house – a crumbling Warwickshire pile called Hundreds Hall – but the effect is even more claustrophobic. “This house works on people,” says Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), with the archness of a woman who knows she is setting out the stall for the movie to come.

It certainly casts a spell on Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who has admired the place since he was a poor and covetous child. His mother worked there as a maid and now, in the late 1940s, he is called back into its damp, echoing labyrinth to attend to a distressed servant. What he finds also is Mrs Ayres’s son, Roderick (Will Poulter), scarred and mangled from the war, and her daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who regards her own clan with an air of distracted bemusement: “We’ve lost the trick of company,” she confesses. Not that Faraday minds. He’s just happy to be brought into the house. Invited to one of the family’s soirées, he is regarded suspiciously by the snooty partygoers until Mrs Ayres confirms that he is there as a guest. “Ah – one of us,” someone says approvingly, and you half expect the rest of the room to take up the chilling chorus from Tod Browning’s Freaks.

If The Little Stranger is a horror film, the source of its horror is the fear of social estrangement. There is a ghost at Hundreds Hall – “It hates me, it haunts me!” cries Roderick of this malevolent presence, which he has every reason to suppose must be the spirit of his other sister, who perished as a child. But there is a cuckoo in the nest, too, and that is Faraday, who never got over the shame and inferiority he felt as a boy visiting the house. He turns cold when Roderick complains about death duties, loath to be reminded of his own lowly economic status, yet he also worries that the new National Health Service will put patients and doctors on an equal footing, robbing him of the little status he has.

After a lifetime of yearning for Hundreds Hall, he finally sees a way in through his burgeoning relationship with Caroline. “What this house needs is a big dose of happiness,” he proclaims, broaching the idea of marriage, and you have to wonder who exactly he’s proposing to: the woman or the walls.

Gleeson has reserves of charm but they are not required here. Instead he keeps Faraday’s wounds painfully close to the surface, playing the role stiff and straight: he looks like a toothbrush with ginger bristles. It’s a necessarily dry performance but did it need to be such a forbidding one? He played a similar role in Abrahamson’s twisted comedy Frank – an outwardly trustworthy figure whose influence is revealed to be pernicious – but that was a slowly dawning revelation; here, we wait for everyone else to notice what we can see from the outset.

The film is low on humour and what it has emerges largely from the phlegmatic line readings and gallumphing physicality of the superb Wilson. (She would’ve made an even better Churchill than Gary Oldman.) The most expressive shot finds her reacting with blank disbelief to a compliment while plonked inelegantly on a sofa, cigarette at the ready, party dress bunched around her, a dog lying unimpressed at her side. Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay is direct and economical but perhaps a more radical repurposing was needed, a way of handing over part of the storytelling duties to Caroline as some relief from the arid, unvarying landscape of Faraday’s resentments.

It’s not that the thesis isn’t convincing: class warfare visited on the doctor has left him riddled with self-loathing. And it hasn’t ended – each member of the Ayres household has cause at some point to remind him that he doesn’t belong. (“You’re no one,” he is told.) But it’s a problem for The Little Stranger that Faraday’s bitterness works like a depressant, consuming him but also the movie, and robbing it of some of the electrical charge vital for fully effective horror. 

The Little Stranger (12A)
dir: Lenny Abrahamson

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war