‘THE LITTLE STRANGER’ Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Josh Dylan; directed by Lenny Abrahamson; 111 minutes; R for some disturbing bloody images and sequences of terror.
Most haunted houses in movies share basic qualities. They are empty and dilapidated, and the floorboards creak too much. This blueprint lets filmmakers create a sense of foreboding, usually culminating in a jump scare and a jolt of music.
At first glance, “The Little Stranger” seems to have been shaped by the same cookie cutter used by countless haunted-house films. But director Lenny Abrahamson is far more ambitious. His follow-up to 2015’s “Room” is a character-driven psychological thriller, one whose larger implications will trouble your mind, like a ghost.
We cross the threshold of Hundreds Hall with Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a kindly country physician. World War II recently has ended, and Faraday has returned to his hometown to take up private practice with a partner. At the Hall — once resplendent but fallen into disrepair — his patient is the maid (Liv Hill) for the lady of the house, Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), who lives with her adult children, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and Roddy (Will Poulter), a badly wounded veteran. Faraday soon ingratiates himself with the family, treating Roddy’s wounds and befriending Caroline.
The house also has a mysterious quality, which no one can quite articulate. Before long, everyone living there begins to fear they’re going mad.
Adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, the screenplay by Lucinda Coxon drips with quiet menace. Faraday, who narrates the film, returns again and again to a formative moment from his childhood, in which the still-grand mansion — where his mother once worked as a maid — captured his imagination. On one level, class has informed his obsession with the house. The middle-class Faradays only knew such opulence as outsiders.
But Coxon and Abrahamson have added several layers of meaning. Faraday’s relationship with the Ayreses complicates the drama. At the story’s start, he’s almost like a servant, obeying their every whim. But soon he has become so indispensable that they begin to think of him as family.
“The Little Stranger” is a counterintuitive choice for Abrahamson, who has never made a period film. But what’s more surprising is how this story doesn’t fit neatly into a genre.
At the heart of “The Little Stranger” is its ghost story, of sorts, whose horror sequences build toward a sense of inevitability, with the methodical pace of a figure wandering a dimly lit hallway. These moments are more creepy than gory or intense, and what makes them effective is their ambiguity.