While watching Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger – quite possibly one of the strangest projects a director has undertaken after their previous film was nominated for Best Picture – I couldn’t help but think back on Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, my introduction to gothic horror. I remembered feeling chilled to the bone upon the ghost of Peter Quint’s first “appearance,” feeling paranoid by its overall presentation – particularly the lighting choices and shooting style – of the mansion and being downright frightened by the harrowing intensity of its conclusion, nailing an epic crescendo of supernatural, though quite possibly psychological terror with one of the most tragic endings put to screen. Not only do Clayton and Abrahamson’s films ultimately bear quite a few similarities unrelated to style expected of its genre, both are reminders of how a truly great ending affects how we see and read a film.
The Little Stranger, itself an adaptation of a gothic horror fiction like The Innocents, is a film about secrets that fittingly keeps its own tightly concealed, letting one revelation after another methodically drip out as if containing the mystery were as fundamentally vital as keeping the pipes from freezing over in blistering winter. One at a time each secret is carefully discarded – or so it seems – to the point of potential irritation for its audience, especially those not used to the reliance on moodiness expressed through stereotypically British emotional repression gothic fictions usually take part in, until the final shot arrives and bears the poetic resemblance of an avalanche satisfyingly washing over and burying all expectations. It’s an explosion whose impact is intentionally more subdued than Miss Giddens’s climactic confrontation with Miles, but nonetheless represents an evocative denouement.
It’s worth additionally noting that the sort of film Focus Features’s advertising has presented it as isn’t quite the case, and it’s the film’s covert, ideologically conscious identity that gives its final frames that essential last pop. Domhnall Gleeson plays Dr. Faraday, a country doctor who’s returned to the small Warwickshire town where he grew up as boy. Making frequent visits to the now-reclusive Ayres family at the increasingly dilapidated Hundreds Hall, a place he had a brief, but memorable history with as a working-class lad, his newest patient suddenly expresses an ill feeling towards a supposed malevolent presence haunting the hallways. Though Faraday writes off his claims, over time stranger occurrences feed an overwhelming dread into the remaining Ayres family and make his own history with the manor clearer, yet more bizarre.
While the film is as flavored with supernatural spookiness and a progressively burgeoning atmosphere you’d expect from such a synopsis, it takes great pains deliberately de-emphasizing the influence these facets may hold in inflecting the genre’s requisite sullenness in seemingly stricter favor of character and theme, whereas other gothic horrors may use such as well as setting and technical accomplishment as a tag-team effort. In other similar films, the setting itself and its connection to the supernatural and broader ideas of demise might play a significant role, but here it’s curiously downplayed as if it were an interchangeable accessory for the usual period aesthetic. As such, the film isn’t particularly frightening in a traditional sense, restricting the conventional violence and jolting set-pieces to intermittent narrative punctuation to ensure their respective resonance.
Rather, like Sarah Waters’s novel of the same name, The Little Stranger centers its focus upon examinations of class, gender and traditional manifestations of both, as well as how each influences the protagonists, narrative progression and tone. Though The Innocents doesn’t explore how England’s ruling gentry dealt with their own decline in the face of a growing middle and working class, poetically represented here not just by the decrepit Hundreds Hall, but also a minor subplot in the Ayres family ceding property for a housing development project, there exists between the two a significant emphasis upon unconscious, repressed class resentment. While The Innocents is comparatively more explicit in these terms, The Little Stranger exhibits these sentiments in the form of denial.
For all intents and purposes, the Ayres family and their position at the pinnacle of social status has all but become a specter of itself, yet they continue engaging in upper class formalities. Though Abrahamson’s meticulous direction may through its entirety resemble the careful, step-by-step breaking down of this façade, one particular scene near the end of the first act depicting a dinner party at the manor for the Ayres and family friends of similar nobility epitomizes the suffocating stiffness of tradition and accepted conduct to the point of comic self-reflexivity toward archetypal period pieces, demonstrating the ultimate weariness of such behavior amidst a shifting social landscape. On a similar token, Gleeson’s Faraday, once a working-class boy, returns to the area and manor almost performing a reflexive, reactionary denial of his upbringing, posturing the same restraint and rigor and even going as far as suggesting the Ayres shouldn’t sell part of their land.
Such socioeconomic symbolism may partially influence the rising bitterness felt through the storytelling, but it’s the latter attention to Faraday’s mounting strange behavior related to performative class identity tying into an equal presence of enacting gender norms that raises the tension, doing the job normally reserved for basic hauntings. As he becomes more attached to Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson), his increasingly perplexing actions in meaning to retain patriarchal standards of love and relationships gradually establishes a rift between his problematically nostalgic longing and the Ayres’s inevitable collective admission of progress. Another important passing detail elucidated within the first 10 minutes reveals that Hundreds Hall used to be a boarding school for young girls where they would be taught proper conduct and domesticity, signifying its own lingering shadow amongst the women of the Ayres household, themselves additionally, initially trying to maintain their own fading self-image in line with tradition.
And so instead of creating suspense through conventional genre dynamics, The Little Stranger manages its own metaphysical chills through interpersonal conflict and personal history engendered by intertwining observations about a changing culture, which carries the narrative much more than you’d realize assuming you were expecting a Conjuring-type vintage creep-fest. Perhaps that’s additionally because what remains of a traditional gothic horror within its structure, notably the occasional bits of violence and jump scare moments, are treated so peculiarly matter-of-fact within the moment-to-moment storyline that it’s all but impossible not to be captivated by how bizarre it all feels in relation to our preconceived expectations, especially considering it is a sly subversion that doesn’t lack in purpose. Much like Phantom Thread, it feels as though it’s going through these consistent, subtly played shifts that keep our attention as much as they beguile us as to the film’s true identity.
There’s always something off-kilter about the way The Little Stranger operates under Abrahamson’s unwavering control over the piece, and the sad part is the marketing, however little of it there is, is pitching the wrong sort of film, even if that’s to be understood in this particular case. Because to be fair to the folks at Focus, this is a tough film to advertise. In essence, it’s a horror film whose visceral horrors are relegated to the background while the primary culprit is an intangible esoteric concept. How does one incorporate these thoughts into an ad campaign organically and without even slightly ruining the surprise? But all the same, thank goodness for its surprises, for its idiosyncratic singularity proves that even the oldest of genres can still learn new tricks.