Unheralded ‘Little Stranger’ one of the year’s best

Image courtesy Focus Features.

9/10 Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger didn’t even make $1 million — after a three weekend release, it’s wallowing at $713,143 domestic while most of the country was watching Crazy Rich Asians. Given how well The Nun would do just afterward, I think a lot of people genuinely wouldn’t understand what they missed out on.

In 1947, Dr. Farraday (Domhnall Gleeson, Oliver Zetterström as a child) is summoned to Hundreds Hall, home of the wealthy Ayers family, to tend to the family’s last remaining house maid Betty (Liv Hill). It is not the first time Farraday has seen the mansion. He was there when it first opened in 1919, when his mother was one of a host of the family’s servants.

The house of Ayers has fallen into extreme disrepair in the 30 years since, both in wealth and political power and in its physical manifestation, Hundreds Hall. The mansion’s entire upper floor has been abandoned. Its master Roderick (Will Poulter), who returned from the war with horrifying burns on most of his body and a mangled leg, believes a menace is lurking in the halls. “There’s something in this house that hates us,” he says.

Indeed, as Farraday treats Betty, then Roderick, then moves on to the family matriarch Angela (Charlotte Rampling) while taking a romantic interest in her last remaining child Caroline (Ruth Wilson), more and stranger misfortunes begin to befall the Ayers family. Angela is convinced that the spirit of her favorite daughter Susan (Tipper Siefert-Cleveland), who fell suddenly ill and died the very day in 1919 that Farraday first glimpsed the mansion, is haunting them from the abandoned upper floor.

The Little Stranger is a borderline masterpiece, an exquisite ghost story about class and undying hatred. It is a sudden, elegant glimpse of what character-driven horror can and should be, a complex tragedy that slowly and gracefully becomes a horror movie as the monster reveals itself over the entire course of the film — the tale isn’t complete until its haunting final shot.

The film’s scenes stick mostly to the foyer and main entertaining area, making the massive Hundreds Hall seem like a claustrophobic nightmare. The Little Stranger slowly works its way up the master staircase, repeatedly cutting back to a point-of-view shot of Farraday nervously looking up from the ground landing as if wondering what lies above. New rooms are revealed throughout the film, giving the mansion, well-known to its inhabitants, a sense of mystery and discovery and lending credence to the notion that some kind of poltergeist may have taken the hall’s upper floors.

It is difficult to discuss what makes The Little Stranger so disturbing without spoiling it, and this is one of the few films that you simply must see unspoiled first. It’s one of those tightly-wound mysteries in which every detail is important. It’s not completely clear what’s going on until the end, and a sense of something being horribly out of place persists through the entire 111 minute runtime.

Where most popular horror is slavishly devoted to repeating the same jumpscare sequence for 90 minutes, offering brief bursts of horror at frequent intervals, The Little Stranger sends intensifying chills down the viewer’s spine from start to hair-raising finish. It’s a truly brilliant film, one that deserves far more than to have been lost in a late-August shuffle made up of significantly weaker films.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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