The Little Stranger **

It has an appropriately creepy setting, yet it all strikes as hollow and unsatisfying, a failure of execution after the proper mood is established. 

Is it worth $10? No 

There’s something odd and unsettling about “The Little Stranger,” which of course is the intention in period piece horror such as this. Too bad in the end it all strikes as hollow and unsatisfying. It’s a failure of execution after the proper tone is established, the equivalent of starting the movie saying “oooh” with intrigue only to leave saying “aww man” with disappointment.

For director Lenny Abrahamson, it’s the follow-up to his 2015 hit “Room,” for which star Brie Larson won an Oscar. That film’s success means expectations are high here, which makes the disappointment of “The Little Stranger” more notable. Mind you, it’s not a complete dud, it’s just a letdown in all the ways you never want a horror movie to be a letdown.

It’s 1948 in the English countryside. Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to Hundreds Hall, a vast dwelling occupied by the Ayres family. Their maid, Betty (Liv Hill), is sick. He’s been to Hundreds Hall before – as a child his mother worked as a maid there, and he has distinct memories of attending a birthday party on the lawn. He helps Betty, and then he helps the disfigured twenty-something Roderick (Will Poulter). More visits, in the interest of continuing Roderick’s treatment, find him falling in love with Roderick’s frumpy sister, Caroline (Ruth Wilson). All the while, odd things such as bells ringing, scratching noises, and other sounds are easily heard, but given little attention by the matriarch, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). Certainly something is amiss at this estate, and the fact that the payoff doesn’t satisfy after the lackluster buildup is a notable disappointment.

Sadly, “The Little Stranger” is never scary. Creepy, yes, but never scary. When you’re dealing with some kind of ghost terrorizing a family in a country estate, you need some amount of scary. This is not to say it needs jump scares, it just needs something interesting to happen. The little girl ostensibly and mysteriously mauled by the dog is a start, but it goes right back to being dull immediately afterward.

More importantly, Gleeson it not a compelling lead. His character is a stuffy, flat, stick-in-the-mud, and his ineffectual presence never hooks us into the story. Therefore as he’s helping Roderick, falling for Caroline, and growing closer with the family, we never much care. Yes he has a prior connection to the house, but it gets to the point that the characters all realize something weird is happening, and they don’t move out. Why stay in a haunted mansion?

One can see why Abrahamson would be drawn to the material. “The Little Stranger” is a wonderful challenge of a filmmaker’s acumen, with the setting, production and costume design, and editing all essential to make or break the film. He may have come up a little short this time, but no doubt Abrahamson’s best is still to come.

Did you know?
Gleeson and Poulter also starred in “The Revenant” (2015).

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