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“The Little Stranger”: Domhnall Gleeson thrills in horror film for adults

August 30, 2018

“The Little Stranger”: Domhnall Gleeson thrills in horror film for adults

Director Lenny Abrahamson didn’t change very much from Sarah Waters’ suspense classic “The Little Stranger” — yet so much is different. Waters’ novel — a Man Booker Prize short-list title — was a masterful tale of human nature in the aftermath of World War II, the English class system and a haunted house (maybe).

In his film “The Little Stranger,” Irish director Lenny Abrahamson (“Room,” “Frank’) downplays the class elements and significance of the time period — a time of great social change in England, especially for the landed gentry like the family in this tale — and plays up the supernatural elements.

You likely already know this if you’ve seen the creepy posters featuring Domhnall Gleeson posed with part of his face covered by a decaying mask and the words “These delusions are contagious.”

Despite all this, “The Little Stranger” is not a particularly scary movie — at least not in the traditional horror sense. It’s a tense psychological thriller that evokes scares through mood and words rather than blood and gore. There is a bit of that, too, but so little I wondered why the film had an R rating.

Set in 1947 in a decaying country mansion called Hundreds Hall, “The Little Stranger” begins with the arrival of a stranger: Dr. Faraday (the excellent Gleeson). The young doctor, fresh in a new assignment after the war, is visiting the house to care for a sick maid. Turns out she’s faking, because she’s too scared to stay in the house. And no wonder. Life inside the house is as decrepit and antiquated as the decaying structure looks.

The manor is lorded over by a grande dame, the slightly delusional and still very crusty Mrs. Ayres (the magnificent Charlotte Rampling). She lives with her damaged and depressed son, Roderick, badly injured in the war; and feisty daughter Caroline (the wonderful Ruth Wilson). She brings the only bit of life to the house — she wants to look forward while they look back.

It’s not the doctor’s first visit to the house. He was there at a village fete as a child, when the  Ayreses in their manor were the honored benefactors of the village. Of course, the villagers were just allowed on the lawn, not inside. Faraday, though, made it in, as his mother was a maid there.

How times have changed! Faraday is now a proper member of society, thanks to opportunities the war brought to the working classes, and the Ayreses, like so many gentry, are struggling to just get by in the new world order. The doctor’s visit isn’t a total waste; he becomes fast friends with Caroline, and a regular visitor at the house, something unthinkable a generation earlier.

Old snobberies do still exist, though, as Faraday learns at a dinner party at Hundreds that goes horribly wrong. Because, oh yes, there may be someone else living at Hundreds Hall, at least that’s what Roderick says when he’s afraid to go out of his room for the party. Faraday thinks he’s being ridiculous and convinces him to leave this room. Bad idea. This horrible night sets off a terrible chain of events winding toward the fall of the house of Ayres.

Who is haunting Hundreds Hall? A daughter who died in childhood? An evil spirit? Their own deluded minds?

The answer, when revealed, may shock, but it begins to make sense when you re-evaluate what you’ve seen.

In Waters’ book, it was never made clear whether or not Hundreds was really haunted, or its residents were haunted into madness by their past. The movie version is much more obvious in its supernatural elements, and it’s the lesser for that. Still, “The Little Stranger” is a sophisticated thriller for those who would rather be scared with quiet chills than axes and chain saws.

REVIEW

Little Stranger

Who: Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. With Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter.

Rated: R (for some disturbing bloody images)

Running time: 111 minutes

When: Opens Friday

Where: Area theaters

Grade: B

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