Lenny Abrahamson's 'The Little Stranger' Sells Supernatural Thrills But Delivers Historical Drama

By James Jay Edwards
Released: August 31, 2018
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After a doctor is called to visit a crumbling manor, strange things begin to occur.

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Film Review
When we were all walking out of the press screening of The Little Stranger, a fellow critic turned to me and said "well, looks like the trailer got us on that one." He could not have been more right.

The Little Stranger is about a doctor named Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson from Ex Machina and Frank) who is called out to a palatial mansion called Hundreds Hall to see a patient. As a child, Faraday spent time at Hundreds when his mother was a maid there, and he always loved the look and feel of the place, but now he is shocked and saddened to see it in disrepair. Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling from 45 Years and Orca) and her two adult children, Roderick (The Revenant's Will Poulter) and Caroline (Locke's Ruth Wilson) still live in the home, but the family has fallen on hard times, and the manor has obviously seen better days.

The Little Stranger, image courtesy Focus Features.

Faraday's patient at the house is the maid, Betty (Jellyfish's Liv Hill), whose symptoms are determined to be psychological, caused simply by her being uncomfortable being in the spooky house. Mrs. Ayres seems to be haunted by the memories of her dead daughter, Susan, but as Faraday spends more time in the house and becomes closer to Caroline, he starts to feel like maybe it's more than Mrs. Ayres' memories that are haunted.

In the dictionary, under the words "Slow Burn," it says "see The Little Stranger." Based on the novel by Sarah Waters (who also wrote the book that was adapted into The Handmaiden), The Little Stranger was written by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room, Frank). It's pretty much a tale of two halves, with the first section of the movie being about as exciting as watching paint dry. Even the scenes that wind up being important to the story are glossed over and shooed aside so that the movie can concentrate on unnecessary exposition.

The Little Stranger, image courtesy Focus Features.

Once the ghost stuff starts happening in the later parts of the movie, The Little Stranger picks up a bit. It rolls down the other side of the mountain that it had been so carefully climbing until then. It eventually becomes a form of the movie that the audience expects it to become, but does so way too late. There's very little payoff to all of the buildup of the first half of the movie, so the combined experience is just disappointing.

It will be interesting to see what kind of an audience (if any) The Little Stranger finds. It's a decent enough movie, but it's being sold and marketed as a supernatural horror flick along the lines of The Conjuring or The Woman in Black, and it is absolutely not that. In a nutshell, my colleague was right. The trailer got us.

The Little Stranger, image courtesy Focus Features.
For all of its narrative flaws and tonal inconsistencies, The Little Stranger looks great. Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland (Ghost Stories, American Animals) shot the film beautifully, making use of shallow depth of field to disorient the viewer as well as sweeping wide shots to show off the splendor (and the decay) of the creepily stirring location. Birkeland treats The Little Stranger like a ghost movie, subtly shadowing corners and edges so that anything could be hiding in the folds. Never mind the fact that most of it is window dressing, the fact that Birkeland is able to inject mystery where there is none is impressive. The photography is one of the strongest elements of The Little Stranger.

The Little Stranger, image courtesy Focus Features.
Scary Factor
If there was a zero clock option for scary, The Little Stranger would get it. It's not scary at all, because despite what the trailer wants you to think, it's not a horror movie at all. The decrepit and dilapidated mansion is a great haunted house, but it's wasted by the lack of ghosts in the movie - aside from some bell ringing and door slamming, the "haunting" is pretty tame. Although there are plenty of missed opportunities for some great scares, Abrahamson takes the artsy route instead of going for broke. Seriously, Room is more disturbing than The Little Stranger. I'm not kidding.

The Little Stranger, image courtesy Focus Features.

Drama, Horror, Mystery
Release Date
August 31, 2018
MPAA Rating
Sarah Waters
Production Designer
Casting Director
Music Score