Movie Reviews: The Little Stranger (2018)

It’s may not be October yet, but that hasn’t kept studios from releasing horror films early.  This time out we take a look at yet another under the radar gothic horror movie from an experienced director.  The director this time out is Lenny Abrahamson, fresh off the major critical success of 2015’s Room.  It’s not often that the follow up film from a director to a film that was nominated for four Oscars including Best Director to be buried in its release, but frankly, I have no clue who this film was intended for.

Hundreds Hall is a decaying country estate in post-World War II England.  It’s cracking, fading, wallpaper peeling all over the place, leaking, and a shell of its former self.  It’s currently inhabited by the Ayres family, Roderick (Will Poulter), a badly scarred all over and limping RAF vet, his smart and shy sister Caroline (a newly freed from The Affair Ruth Wilson), and their mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling).  Besides their maid, the continuous presence in their lives is a local doctor, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson).

Faraday starts to take more of an interest in the family, administering treatments to Rod, both physical and psychological, growing closer to Caroline, and becoming a fixture at the house.  He even has a deep connection to the house from before Caroline and Roderick even lived there, back when their now-dead sister was still alive.  It’s an unhealthy fixation though, born of a lower-class upbringing that grows to consume him just as the members of the Ayres family are all afflicted with their own personal issues and apparent madnesses.  Roderick becoming convinced that there is something in the house and having premonitions, that appear to come true, of ill fortune.  Angela held in the grips of believing her dead daughter is still there as the Rebecca influences loom large over the story.  Caroline barely holding onto her own sanity as the most sensible of the family.

There’s a lot to like in the film.  It looks great with the washed out look of the film a perfect reflection of both the post-war era and the remnants of a once great household.  The acting is also generally very strong, especially from Gleeson and Wilson who both perfectly portray a constant feeling of unease.  I love the gothic atmosphere and the emphasis on slow boil horror that never gives into temptation to betray all that in the end.  It gets almost everything right and yet it still winds up being a failure.

It’s the glacial pace that really does it in.  A slow build or burn is good, but too often the film feels like it turns off the elements completely between the quick horror scenes.   It’s always the risk with this type of film, maintaining enough of a fire to drive an audience.  An important part of a gothic horror film is the central mystery, and the mystery here is a dud.  The film bold facedly tells the answer to the mystery in the middle of the film in an awkwardly placed scene that serves no real point whatsoever.  I’m not sure if the film was supposed to make us think it was a red herring or just one possible explanation, but while watching it, I don’t know how anyone could have not realized this was explaining the entire plot of the movie in detail.

It’s the kind of move that made a film that was already trying my patience lose me.  There’s not nearly enough plot for the film and without trying I found my mind rushing ahead to where the movie would be heading next and waiting impatiently for it to catch up.  I get part of that stems from the characters, Caroline being a shy and indecisive type and Faraday, despite his persistence, is still a very much a more reserved British man, but the movie telegraphs its every move.

There was a lot of potential here and I wanted it to an underappreciated success, but it was not to be.  While it’s easy to tell those who have little tolerance for slow building films to avoid it, I can’t even recommend it for those who are a fan of this type of horror.  There’s not enough hook or payoff to make it worthwhile despite how great it looks and the moments of promise.