Sarah Waters’ novel The Little Stranger was a shift out of her staked-out territory – forsaking Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens for M.R. James and Robert Aickman as models, moving on from the mid-Victorian to post-WWII, working out a genuinely supernatural premise rather than rationalising any spookiness, and – most obviously – focusing on a male viewpoint and minimising the lesbian love story. Lenny Abrahamson specialises in careful, unsettling adaptations of upscale horror novels – What Richard Did, Room – and is well-matched with the material. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon also has an obviously compatible CV (The Heart of Me, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Danish Girl). And the casting is similarly on-the-nose – with Domnhall Gleeson reprising many of the buttoned-down mannerisms of his A.A. Milne from Goodbye, Christopher Robin.
Mild-mannered, clipped Dr Faraday (Gleeson), well-spoken son of a housemaid, courts stout, oddly beautiful Caroline (Ruth Wilson), daughter of come-down-in-the-world landed gentry. But it’s not actually a heterosexual romance — Faraday’s real object of desire is Hundreds House, the crumbling (and haunted) Ayres family estate, which he visited as an awed child and is drawn to as a grown-up … almost in the way Eleanor is drawn to Hill House in the Shirley Jackson novel or Jack to the Overlook in The Shining. Upon the Ayres House lies a curse – the war-scarred heir (Will Poulter) is even called Roderick, to add in a Poe reference – with a pale matriarch (Charlotte Rampling) convinced that the place is haunted by the vengeful spirit of her first daughter Susan, who sickened and died before Roderick and Caroline was born, and seems to scratch Ss on the walls (and her mother’s skin) with spectral fingernails.
It’s an oblique tale whose final twist is foreshadowed heavily because there isn’t time for an explanation on the model of the psychiatrist’s monologue at the end of Psycho to tie it all up – though the title, one significant speech about the nature of ghosts, some practice scribbles on a blotter and other clues all bear thinking about. It has a strong, unusual theme – and Wilson, in particular, is extraordinarily good as an awkward, contradictory character – but makes the odd choice of telling a ghost story from the point of view of a calm, if not sceptical observer who seems to be on the outside of the curse – after a single shocking, violent early incident (which is visited on a peripheral character), the film draws in its fangs and is chilly rather than chilling, only becoming scary in the brief moments when the POV shifts from Faraday (no first name given) to the imperilled members of the Ayres household – which includes a wry, vulnerable maid (Liv Hill) – as the little stranger ambiguously drives them to self-harm.
The enormous social changes – including the National Health and a post-war housebuilding boom, all of which encroach on the Hundreds – of the immediate post-war era are sketched in, but the film keeps getting away from the bustle of contemporary life to return with Faraday to the huge, impressively-designed house. If Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak offered the most gorgeous imaginary English aristocratic seat in decay imaginable, this delivers something as eerie but far more credible – baggy paper that has to be pinned to the walls, a library so damp that even a conflagration merely burns one shelf of soggy books rather than bringing the whole place down Roger Corman-style, upstairs rooms empty of sold-off furniture, ornate decorations diminished by generations of children snapping off plaster souvenirs, social events where acute embarrassment gives way to bloody crisis, a basic lack of amenities even meagre modern dwellings offer. It’s an immersive picture of a bygone era – as much in the genre of Phantom Thread as of The Haunting – but also rather a remote, academic exercise rooted in dry obsession rather than passion or terror.