There’s a single terrifying moment in “The Little Stranger,” an otherwise confused, self-serious drama, that shows real potential: Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), the matriarch of a wealthy family, is haunted by a supernatural presence that locks her in a room. A violent force rattles the door as the walls shake with jarring vibrations from every direction. She’s surrounded by an invisible, unknown threat, yet Rampling’s frantic response grounds the circumstances in credible dread. The visceral quality of claustrophobia is rarely so well executed in cinematic terms, but for much of “The Little Stranger,” it’s the material itself that feels boxed in.
The movie flails more than it fails, grasping for possibilities beyond its potential. Director Lenny Abrahamson follows up his acclaimed “Room” with another expressive look at people trapped by phenomena beyond their control, but this time much of the story has been squandered by misguided goals. “The Little Stranger” approaches genuine horror territory but pulls back again and again, resisting the strongest aspects of its narrative in favor of an elegant but hollow period drama. Failing to muster enough substance to justify the gravitas, this is a haunted house movie with desperate aspirations for something more.
Based on Sarah Waters’ 2009 novel, “The Little Stranger” unfolds in the immediate aftermath of WWII, when the young Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives at the Ayres’ palatial mansion in the remote British countryside of Lidcote to help its ailing maid Betty (Liv Hill). The family grounds, known as Hundreds Hall, have been a part of the doctor’s life since his own childhood, when he wandered the premises during various local gatherings and found himself in awe of the lavish gothic interiors.
Now, the 18th century estate has become an eerie, vacant shell, where Mrs. Ayres’ daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) roams the hallways with little to do and her brother Roderick (Will Poulter) copes with severe scars he suffered during the war. In short order, Faraday takes a liking to Caroline and starts hanging around the premises, helping Roderick cope with his injuries and advising on pretty much everything else. Pretty soon, he’s being asked to help in ways he couldn’t have anticipated: a bizarre, unseen presence has been scratching the walls at night, and that’s just one of a few threatening developments that enhance the aura of dread lingering over every scene.
As a mood piece — one relatively faithful to the style and trajectory of Waters’ novel — “The Little Stranger” moves forward with fits of intriguing exposition. But Faraday’s sullen, muted demeanor syncs with cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland’s grayish palette, to the point where many scenes struggle from a stuffy, robotic quality at odds with the circumstances at hand. On the page, Waters’ drama benefits from vivid prose that conjures a world of uncertainties surrounding Faraday’s motivations as well as the history of the family that draws him in. On screen, however, the sterile images become a roadblock.
Still, there’s a fascinating allegorical quality to this ghostly scenario: Faraday confesses that he envied this household in his childhood, having come from a poorer family, and his newfound role at the center of the Ayres’ various challenges suggests that long-dormant class issues continue to drive a wedge in this relationship despite his attempt to move beyond them. Here and there, the movie keeps you guessing about where Faraday’s childhood history with the estate might lead him, but he’s such an uninteresting character that the tension never rises enough to hold the mystery together.
Above all else, “The Little Stranger” suffers from a nagging case of deja vu. The DNA for this sort of spooky British storytelling stretches all the way back to Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” but while that story used an otherworldly life-or-death scenario to keep the suspense in play, much of “The Little Stranger” lingers in a sleepy, restrictive mode, as if Abrahamson himself lost interest in the stakes and decided to keep rebooting them instead.
The movie never settles on a singular groove: it’s alternately focused on Faraday’s would-be romance with Caroline (which never generates any real sparks), and Roderick’s mounting desire to escape the family bonds and forge a new life, but neither of these pathways holds much appeal, at least not when there are literal things going bump in the night lurking in the walls. But Abrahamson seems so coy about the haunting of the Ayres’ house that he refuses to allow the movie’s strongest aspect to take center stage, and the perils of “The Little Stranger” hover aimlessly throughout the movie like a specter in search of some elusive white light.
It’s unfortunate when visionary directors stumble into banal material, but Abrahamson’s displayed such flexibility that even this sort of miscalculation speaks to the versatility of his talent. From the oddball rock satire “Frank,” he shifted into the haunting and magical “Room,” and now he’s delivered something else altogether. At least this unpredictable trajectory means he’s less likely to lose his way than to keep searching for new ones. Better luck next time.
“The Little Stranger” opens theatrically August 31.