2018 | rated R | starring Ruth Wilson, Domhnall Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter | directed by Lenny Abrahamson | 1 hr 55 mins |
Special Halloween Horrorfest # 1
I just saw The Little Stranger from start to finish, I’m pretty sure I was awake the whole time, and I struggle to put together what it was about. This is the type of haunted house movie that hipsters usually mis-label as a slow burn horror film. The key component to the slow burn is that is that it eventually catches fire so we wait patiently usually awash in realism or atmosphere for that spark to light. But Little Stranger is the kind of slow burner that just slowly burns itself out and it moves at a pace that would have Ti West yelling “get to the point!”.
Fresh off of the terrific Room and with a lot of goodwill capital to spend, it’s puzzling why director Lenny Abrahamson chose this project in particular. It’s ostensibly his gothic horror film, set after world war 2 and following a local doctor, Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who visits Hundreds Hall to care for the various members of the Ayres family, including scarred veteran (Will Poulter), grandma (Charlotte Rampling) and spending time with solitary matriarch Caroline (Ruth Wilson). There is a lot of talk about how unkempt the family is and how they’ve let the Downton Abbey-like estate of Hundreds fall into ruins and – on top of that – that “some thing” in the house has it out for them. What’s happening? Spoiler, the other shoe doesn’t fall. The atmosphere that a movie like this should be swimming in is stale and the visuals are so dark, washed out and blotchy it looks like there is something wrong with the movie’s print.
Take a quick glance at the film’s poster. There is more going on in that poster than goes on in all of this way-to-long, almost 2 hour, movie. Abrahamson’s film clangs around inside an empty story wasting everyone’s time with it’s own sense of self importance. It actually becomes obnoxious how this movie covers up a nothing story with the appearance of a prestige film period peace. If the twist is that Gleeson’s Faraday isn’t the protagonist he first appears to be, that is also botched up to the point of obviousness by his increasingly bizarre and inexplicable behavior. About an hour in he goes from cold doctor just doing his work to completely in love with Caroline, intent to skip over any romance and go straight to planning their wedding. With that sign that the movie might start to get interesting, that we might be getting into a domestic psychological drama about a man controlling and gaslighting a woman in need, the movie retreats away from that too. Then when it suddenly shifts into a few moments of genre horror (just enough to fill a trailer) with loud clangs and slamming doors, that also feels unestablished and out of place. All that nothingness and misdirection leads to no ending that is at least consistent with the rest of it.
The Little Stranger isn’t a slow burn. It’s slow. It’s not atmospheric. It’s flat. If it’s designed to be ambiguous, it doesn’t give us any reason to care about any of it, to investigate it and ply out those meanings. It’s more like the shell of a movie that you could drop almost any story into. There are far too many gothic horror films from Jack Clayton’s The Innocents to Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak and far too many horror movies that use the supernatural as a metaphor to delve into our own psychological fears to waste on this one.
P.S. Speaking of good gothic horror films, the Netflix-bought The Lodgers is a much more entertaining gothic horror film. Small and equally cliché, but hitting all the right cinematic notes these films can, Lodgers follows a weirdo brother and his older sister, left to caretake their old English-styled mansion and at the stroke of midnight each night the. ground under the house starts to come alive and water gurgles from the trap door at the foot of the staircase. Visually inventive, well acted and satisfying, Lodgers works inside it’s modest goals.