Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 14, 2019)
An unusual form of horror tale, 2018’s The Little Stranger takes us to England shortly after the end of World War II. Young Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) gets an assignment to tend to Betty (Liv Hill), a sick maid at an estate called “Hundreds Hall”.
Owned by the Ayres clan, Hundreds has seen better days, and the household struggles to get by. Faraday once envied the posh Ayres family but now he tends to injured war veteran Roderick (Will Poulter) as a charity case.
As time passes, Faraday gets closer to the clan, and especially spinster Caroline (Ruth Wilson), as the two slowly develop a romantic connection. However, something seems not quite right at Hundreds Hall, and spooky developments ensue.
Sort of. Sold as a horror movie, genre fans seem likely to encounter disappointment from Stranger, as it lacks the overt scares one usually finds.
Indeed, Stranger so heavily de-emphasizes any form of terror that I find it tough to view it as a true “horror film”. Granted, I understand that the genre covers a wide array of bases, and not all need to deliver active fright-fests.
However, Stranger so actively avoids the kind of territory expected from the domain that I do hesitate to toss it into the horror bin. Instead, it brings us more of a relationship drama with the occasional creepy flourish.
In particular, the movie occasionally visits the memories of Susan, an Ayres daughter who died young. Viewed as something of a “golden girl”, her spirit haunts the story, though it never seems clear if this exists in a literal or metaphorical sense.
Does the Ayres abode truly house a ghost? Or do the surviving Ayres family members suffer such guilt and mental health issues that they simply believe this due to their own psychological damage?
Stranger never makes either side clear, which works as a positive and a negative. On one hand, I appreciate the film’s subtlety and its refusal to spoon-feed the audience. Different viewers will leave with different conclusions.
On the other hand, Stranger can prove awfully frustrating in its elusiveness, and I’ll admit I have little concrete idea what the ending means. I can conjure a few theories about the story and finale but it still leaves us with more questions than answers.
Despite these occasionally maddening moments, Stranger usually works. It may offer a slow movie, but it’s a generally intriguing one.
Again, the pacing can make the viewer a bit impatient at times, but not in a truly annoying manner. Most of the film offers a reasonably compelling piece, especially when it focuses on the Dr. Faraday/Caroline relationship.
We sense doom here from the start, but it remains fascinating to watch their connection evolve. While we may know the story won’t come with a happy ending, we take interest in the path it follows.
With its gradual pacing and lack of overt scares, Stranger won’t work for everyone. I think it mostly rewards patient viewers, though.