You may not know it to look at Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), one of two practitioners at this rural Warwickshire practice, but he has a real passion hidden beneath his reserved outer shell. He has always loved the house on the outskirts of the village where he grew up, and has yearned for a reason to live there, but as a mansion owned by the gentry, it seems an unlikely hope to be realised. Nevertheless, as the doctor he at least has an excuse to visit the place, as he does today when the maid Betty (Liv Hill) falls ill, but on being greeted by the brother, war-scarred Roderick (Will Poulter) and sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) who stay there, he begins to wonder if there is not more going on...
The Little Stranger was director Lenny Abrahamson's follow-up to his Oscar-winner Room, but it was not quite what everyone was expecting, since this was not set in contemporary times, but 1947 just as the British National Health Service is put into place, which not every doctor is too keen on. Selfishness or a genuine fear for their livelihood? For Faraday, it is difficult to tell as he keeps himself to himself, which was another reason this adaptation of Sarah Waters' out of character novel did not do quite as well as its pedigree might have indicated - we think he is the hero, but that is because he is the protagonist, and narrating to boot, yet what if this taciturn chap is the villain?
He may not be, in this film's universe there is the possibility that the spirit of the deceased elder daughter of the resident family in the house, who died when she was a little girl, could be exacting a revenge on those who lived on out of some kind of spite, and there is discussion of poltergeists which Betty could have unwittingly invited in. She has been faking the illness at the beginning of the story in a try at getting sent home (the ploy doesn't succeed), but there is a definite sense she is onto something, for the house which gives the impression of being about to collapse at any minute also emanates bad vibes that everyone seems to be picking up on - everyone except Faraday.
Is his nostalgia blinding him to the drawbacks of the country pile, and rendering its supposed privilege rose tinted after his initial impression as a boy, which we see in flashbacks to fill in Faraday's sketchy psychology? It's true that the stuff we fall in love with at a tender age tends to stick with us for life, yet The Little Stranger (a title that may refer to the doctor as a boy, or the ghost of the dead girl) suggests latching onto an item from our childhoods well into adulthood is not merely representing a desire for the infantile, and leading us to stagnate in a point from the past when we found something we thought we could understand, but could twist our minds into either a denial of the here and now, or actually breed a kind of madness. It's true that the house has a hold over the Ayres family, but what of others?
It should be noted that this was a coldly horrible film, not because it was badly made, far from it, but because it delved into a psyche that many would not wish to dwell on, perhaps because it exposed too much about our own all-encompassing interests. Another Waters, John Waters, famously commented "Life's nothing if you're not obsessed", yet the counterpoint to that is that life is indeed nothing, as if you take away your reason for being then you're little better than one of the birds or beasts who have no grasp of the wider world. One of those beasts is responsible for a truly revolting attack in the film's first half hour, which has you expecting this will be leaning on the disturbing side of things, yet then it pulls back to examine how it has affected the participants at the house, then builds on that to psychoanalyse them. Though there was gore, this was far more psychohorror than a slasher flick, yet it was that too in its obstinately perverse fashion, acted with far more shading than you initially believe, with Wilson in particular unsettlingly vulnerable underneath her bluff countrywoman exterior. Yes, it was a chilly production, but it preyed on the mind should you allow it to. Music by Stephen Rennicks.