Advertising plays a very important, and often overlooked role in movies. The way that a movie is sold to us can have some real repercussions on how you end up feeling about it after you’ve seen it, especially when it wrestles with your expectations. There’s been a recent stable of films over the last few years that have been marketed as horror films, often being hailed as one of the scariest movies you’ll see all year, which ends up being more suspenseful that horrifying, and they often get rejected because of that. I’m not exactly sure why the people in charge of the marketing of films don’t think that there’s a market for suspenseful movies, and why they think they should make it seem like they’re horror films instead of what they are, but that just seems to be the way things are being handled at the moment, regardless of how rarely it seems to work out for them. Which is a shame, because often these seemingly mislabeled films have been quite enjoyable, and they probably could have gotten a better audience if they were actually sold for what they were. I bring this all up, as you can probably guess, because it’s happened again. I first saw the trailer for the new film the Little Stranger, oddly enough, in front of Blindspotting, which ended up feeling a little incongruous. It was placed in the middle of four other trailers, all of which were films that fell more in line with Blindspotting, movies that were telling stories about the black American experience. And then there was this strange little trailer about ghosts and possessions in a stuffy British manor. It certainly stood out to me, initially because it was hilariously out of place, but there was something about the mood and horror that the trailer seemed to promise that piqued my interest. And yet, there was no ghost in this manor. Just a lot of mental illness.
The Little Stranger is primarily the story of a man named Faraday, a doctor in rural England who is starting what could be a rather distinguished career. But, his life is forever changed when he’s asked to cover for a colleague and visit an aristocratic estate called Hundreds Hall to check in one the Hall’s new maid. Faraday has a relationship with Hundreds Hall, he grew up close to it and has coveted the building, its grounds, and the aristocratic family that lived there his entire life, so when he arrives to find the home and the family, the Ayers’, have fallen on hard times, he’s a little put off. Angela Ayers, the matriarch of the family lives there with her two children, Caroline and Roderick. Roderick was badly deformed during World War II and Caroline has come home to help take care of her brother and the family estate, and Faraday finds himself drawn into the family, despite his shock at the state of Hundreds Hall. He starts to befriend Roderick while helping with his injured legs and starts to fall for Caroline, even though she’s his societal better. He starts spending quite a bit of time in Hundreds Hall, ingratiating himself with the Ayers family, hoping that he can someday convince them to ignore cultural norms and accept him as a member of the family.
But, things start to get a little odd the night of a dinner party that the Ayers’ throw. Faraday is invited, and is generally mocked by the other attendees, but the night is quickly ended after the little girl of one of the guests is gruesomely mauled by the Ayers’ dog. This really has a strong affect on the Ayers’, and they begin worrying about some sort of curse. Roderick and Caroline had an older sister who died as a child, and they’ve felt that there’s been a strange presence in the house ever since, and they become convinced that bad things are about to happen. And they do! First, Roderick’s library seems to spontaneously light on fire, almost killing him. He then leaves the house, no longer wanting any part of it, his family, or what’s expected of him as the man of the family. It’s just Angela and Caroline in the house after that, along with their young maid Betty, and strange things start occurring. They find several scratches throughout the house, spelling out the name of the girl who had died so many years ago, and Angela becomes convinced that the ghost of her dead daughter is haunting them. She becomes so distraught that she eventually commits suicide in the house, leaving just Caroline. By this point Faraday has fallen completely in love with Caroline, and decides that the two should wed. Caroline goes along with it, assuming that this will be the perfect escape from Hundreds Hall, until she learns that Faraday expects them to stay in the manor and bring it back to its former glory. She decides she can’t do that, and announces she’s going to move to London, without Faraday. But, the night before she’s supposed to move to London Caroline seems to encounter something in the house, and falls down the main staircase of the house, dying. A formal inquest decides that it was suicide, but we’re left to wonder if it was the doing of a vengeful ghost, or a potentially psychotic Faraday.
I walked away from this film a little unsure of what to feel about it. The movie is very tense, and has several moments of truly masterful suspense in it. But, it’s also a far cry from the horror film that seemed to have been promised. I’m not familiar with the book that it was based upon, but it seemed to be positioned as a terrifying Gothic ghost story, something full of vengeful poltergeists and an ominously creepy house. But, that kind of wasn’t the case. The movie plays like an off-beat, somewhat creepy Gothic romance for most of its run-time, while tackling a lot of issues of the British class system. Like a more unnerving Downton Abbey. Things don’t start getting spooky until the last chunk of the film, and even then it spends so much of its runtime trying to brush that aside that you end up with a movie that kind of defies classification. It’s a very stuffy film. The set-design is gorgeous, and all of the actors are doing a terrific job, but the film kind of crawls along, attempting to set up a suspenseful tone that only really works in quick bursts. There are moments of genuine terror and pulse-pounding suspense in the film, but they’re surrounded by a lot of quiet, awkward conversations in drawing rooms. It’s a story that I could see working quite well as a novel, full of vivid descriptions and internal monologues, but as a film it became rather staid and overly long. It was just generally fine, with some moments of brilliance that kept the film from achieving its potential.
And yet, despite the questionable paranormal aspects of the film, I think the thing that most stuck with me, and the aspect of the film that was the most unnerving, was the whole examination of the British class system. I know that in America we like to erroneously claim that there aren’t stratified classes, but we really just don’t have one as officially cordoned off as the British do. British society seems to be built around very strict rules that put people in boxes that they’re almost incapable of escaping, and the stress, anger, and resentment that that situation breeds seems genuinely destructive. Faraday is a man who has become a physician, respected by those around him, and yet he’s still just “hired help,” to this family of weirdos who are only his betters because they were born into it. They don’t really work, they just sit around their crumbling mansion, trying to stave off social embarrassment, while Faraday is something of a self-made man. He wants the life, and the world of the Ayers, and seems deadset on getting it. Whether or not that desire drives him to murder is a question that the film doesn’t explicitly answer, but I walked away from the film believing that there wasn’t anything supernatural about it. In fact, it was a story that was sadly completely believable. A man who believes that he deserves everything he wants lashing out violently and destroying people to get what he believes is rightfully his? Yeah, there’s nothing supernatural about that idea at all.
The Little Stranger was written by Lucinda Coxon, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and released by Focus Features, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk