Most haunted houses, at least in movies, share basic qualities: They are empty, dilapidated and the floorboards creak a little too much. This blueprint affords filmmakers the opportunity to 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 for countless haunted-house films before it. But director Lenny Abrahamson is far more ambitious than that. His follow-up to 2015’s “Room” — which earned the Irish filmmaker an Oscar nomination for best director — is a character-driven psychological thriller, one whose larger implications will trouble your mind, like a ghost.
We cross the threshold of the house in question, Hundreds Hall, with one Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a kindly country doctor. World War II has recently ended, and Faraday has returned to the village of his youth to take up private practice with a partner. His patient at the Hall — once resplendent, but now fallen into disrepair — is the lone 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 developing a friendship with Caroline.
The house also has a mysterious quality, one that no one can quite articulate. Before long, everyone living there begins to worry they might be going mad.
Adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, the screenplay by playwright Lucinda Coxon drips with quiet menace. Faraday, who narrates the film, returns again and again to a formative moment from his childhood: one in which the still-grand mansion — where his mother once worked as a maid — captured his imagination. On one level, class has informed his lifelong 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 beginning of the story, he’s almost like a servant, obeying their every whim. But soon he has become so indispensable that Caroline and the others begin to think of him as family. Gleeson’s finely crafted performance is key to this transformation — with his friendly yet decorous demeanor gradually revealing a manipulative edge.
“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 simple genre. Thematically, it’s close to the director’s “Frank,” which also starred Gleeson, as the newest member of an underappreciated indie rock band. In both films, the actor plays an interloper entering insular worlds. He is the source of both films’ tension.
As a director, Abrahamson uses that sense of the detached observer as a scalpel, whittling away at our expectations of horror films until we have no choice but to look at — and really listen to — what is happening. It’s an approach that requires patience, on his part and ours, but the rewards are worth it.
At the heart of “The Little Stranger” is its ghost story, of sorts, one whose horror sequences build toward a sense of cautious 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. There are always two explanations for what we have seen: one scientific (typically offered by Faraday) and another suggestive of something more supernatural. The film’s best sequence is its shortest, with Caroline uttering a single word that throws all that we think we know into disarray.
Focus Features, it would seem, does not have the faith in “Little Stranger” that the film deserves, releasing it the end of August, a traditional dumping ground for genre films. But this slow-burn thriller — whose power lies in its dark, elusive nature — delivers few genuine scares, and more mannered, nuanced dialogue than answers. No matter what you make of the film’s final minutes, which are as open to interpretation as everything that has come before, each of the main characters has contributed to that sense of equivocation in ways that are deliciously macabre.
R. At area theaters. Contains some disturbing bloody images and sequences of terror. 111 minutes.