Director Lenny Abrahamson's haunted-house movie likely won’t scare you, but it might make you shiver. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
In Sarah Waters’ absorbing Gothic novel “The Little Stranger,” an 18th-century manor house becomes the central character. The same thing happens in Lenny Abrahamson’s moody screen adaptation of the book — the house practically has its own lines of dialogue. Every floor at Hundreds Hall has a nearly operatic screech; each piece of furniture makes a hellish scraping sound when moved; each wall, with its murky murals and faintly malevolent water stains, seems to be concealing whispers.
It’s 1948, and Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a thin, tight man with a sad little mustache, is called to Hundreds to treat a housemaid. He meets the house’s elegant matriarch Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) and her two grown children, Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and Roderick (Will Poulter), and gradually becomes drawn into the life of the family; more than a tradesman, not quite a friend. And he comes to learn about the secret that haunts Hundreds Hall: something that leaves its mark on the wall, its cool breath lingering in the shadows. Is it the ghost of a lost child, or something else — a ghost of another way of life, one gone forever?
“The Little Stranger” is a haunted-house movie, but not one with cheap scares. In fact there are few scares at all — it’s mostly just an atmosphere of lingering, musty dread — and horror-movie fans should be warned that it’s all quite subtle. But it’s haunting, in its quiet way. Director Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”) knows something of finding menace in silence, and he plays his talented cast like a piano; particularly Rampling, who intones ominous-sounding statements rather deliciously, and Wilson, whose offhand, faintly untamed quality makes Caroline an intriguing sort-of-heroine.
I don’t know why “The Little Stranger” wasn’t held back until Halloween, but here it is now, a chill wind in the dying days of summer. It likely won’t scare you, but it might make you shiver.
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★★★ “The Little Stranger,” with Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, from a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by Sarah Waters. 111 minutes. Rated R for some disturbing bloody images. Opens Aug. 31 at multiple theaters.