Cinema is cyclical. Every so often, moviegoers are treated to the resurrection of a moldy old genre favorite: The haunted house film. The much-anticipated The House with a Clock in Its Walls from director Eli Roth was expected to lead that resurgence this fall. But that movie has already been beaten to the punch by a somber, R-rated chiller that drips with psychological dread.
Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) fulfills his dream to adapt Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, which joins a long lineage of similar suspense literature that’s been translated to the screen. Taking place in 1948 and set within the dilapidated British rooms of Hundreds Hall—a once-regal provincial estate that has fallen into disrepair since the height of its pre-World War II opulence—the bleak tale is viewed through the eyes of Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson, who previously starred in Abrahamson’s quirky comic drama Frank), a ginger-haired country doctor who ingratiates himself into the lives of the Ayres, the family who dwells there.
As the story opens, Faraday is readjusting to life in Lidcote, having recently returned to the small village of his upbringing after the death of his widowed mother, when he’s summoned to nearby Hundreds Hall to tend to the Ayres’ ailing young parlor maid, Betty (newcomer Liv Hill). It’s been nearly 30 years since he’s set eyes on the estate, which the lonely bachelor last visited as a 10-year-old, when his mother worked there as a maid. Recalling the beauty of Hundreds Hall on that spring afternoon in 1919, the stodgy doctor is visibly saddened to see what’s become of the neglected house and its overgrown grounds since his mother borrowed clothes to dress him for the Empire Day Fete so long ago, which Abrahamson cuts to in recurring flashbacks during the picture’s 2-hour running time.
Faraday is haunted by the memory of a childhood secret: During the Empire Day celebration, he followed his mother (Kathryn O’Reilly) into the estate and then snuck upstairs, where the young Faraday (Oliver Zetterström) was compelled to pocket a plaster acorn he’d broken off a moulding that bordered a mirror. When snapping it free, he caught the reflection of a little girl his own age who smiled while witnessing his theft and subsequent punishment, as his mother slapped him for stealing from her employers. That girl was Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland of SyFy’s Krypton), who took ill later that day and never recovered.
Returning from his reminiscence, Faraday examines Betty and quickly discovers that Hundreds’ lone servant isn’t actually unwell, but looking for an excuse to be dismissed from the house that’s rotting from within, echoing the physical and mental state of severely disfigured World War II veteran Roderick (The Revenant’s Will Poulter), the war-ravaged only son of Mrs. Ayres (Red Sparrow’s Charlotte Rampling) and the 24-year-old heir to the estate.
But given Roderick’s tentative grasp of reality, it’s the Ayres women who handle the day-to-day affairs of Hundreds, including the late Susan’s slightly plain younger sister, the 30-something Caroline (Ruth Wilson of Showtime’s The Affair), who Faraday takes an immediate shine to. As such, he’s more than happy to offer his assistance in Roderick’s recovery, administering a experimental treatment to the former airman’s badly burned leg—and offering (sometimes unwanted) advice to the frequently drunk young man who may soon be forced to sell some of the family land.
As a thanks for his kindness, Caroline invites Faraday to a small gathering to enjoy dinner and drinks; he accepts, not only because he’s aware she may be able to keep Rod from dismantling the estate, but also because of his growing affection toward her. However, he’s unaware that the evening has been orchestrated by Caroline’s controlling mother, who’s attempting to set her spinster daughter up with a callous family friend who makes cruel remarks about Caroline’s appearance.
The night goes from bad to worse when an angry, inebriated Roderick refuses to dress for the party and leave his room, convinced that something dreadful is about to happen—and he’s correct. And while Faraday refuses to believe the Ayres’ assessment that unearthly terrors are taking over, a child’s disfigurement, a damaging fire and far worse set the stage for the film’s devastating conclusion.
Blinded by the rose-tinted memories that he’s carried with him for decades, Faraday refuses to see that Hundreds Hall has become home to something more inhospitable than simply a crumbling way of life. Blending drama and period romance, Abrahamson not only examines the aristocratic decline of post-war Britain, but he overcomes genre conventions with supernatural restraint while still offering viewers a steady drip of gothic chills. ◆
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Liv Hill, Josh Dylan, Kate Phillips, Anna Madeley, Camilla Arfwedson, Lorne MacFadyen, Dixie Egerickx, Amy Marston, Sarah Crowden, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, Peter Ormond, Tim Ingall, Archie Bradfield, Oliver Zetterström, Kathryn O’Reilly and Charlotte Rampling. Written by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by Sarah Waters. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.