The Ayres family could be the Ushers of the British interwar period. Their once great manor, Hundreds Hall, has fallen and it can’t get up. Yet, the dour new doctor remains fascinated by the house and the family, because of his experiences as an impressionable youth. The corrosive past is never past enough in Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger, adapted fairly faithfully from Sarah Waters’ novel, which opens today in New York.
Dr. Faraday’s interest Hundreds Hall started with his mother’s stories of her years spent in-service there. However, he became fully obsessed when he visited the estate in its heyday, for a children’s fair the Ayres family hosted. He was probably even more struck by the wild young Ayres daughter Susan, whose untimely death shortly thereafter was the initial spark of the family’s rapid decline.
Years later, Faraday (nobody calls him by his Christian name) returns to the village to join the local GP’s practice. One of his first house calls is the now dilapidated Hundreds Hall, where Roderick (not Usher) Ayres is technically head of household, but most of the practical matters fall to his sister, Caroline. When the villagers (including Faraday’s partner) talk about her, they say condescending things like: “she’s not pretty, but she has a good head on her shoulders.” In contrast, neither Roderick’s head nor his body healed properly after his return from WWI. He is also somewhat haunted by the death of sister Susan, as are the rest of Ayreses, which at this point only amounts to Caroline, and their imperious mother, Mrs. Ayres (again, no Christian name giveth).
So, is the ghost of Susan Ayres haunting Hundreds Hall? It very likely seems so, unless she is just a loud unnerving metaphor for her family’s profound dysfunction. Either way, Faraday still wants in, so he pursues Caroline like he never could before the Great War.
Obviously, the film and its source novel have a lot to say about class, as well as gender roles and maybe even the treatment of veterans, circa Downton Abbey. However, it still functions as an intriguingly suggestive ghost movie—not in the scare-the-pants-off-you tradition of The Conjuring, but in a what-the-heck-did-I-just-see-out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye kind of way.
There is also an eerie resemblance between Domhnall Gleason and Oliver Zetterström, who plays the youthful but still uptight Faraday, seen in fateful flashbacks. As a character, Faraday is a cold fish, who has let his covetousness warp his entire life, but he is only too credible. Ruth Wilson plays Caroline Ayres with an appropriately British stiff upper lip, but she still conveys a sense of a myriad of neuroses barely contained beneath her public façade. Of course, the great Charlotte Rampling is terrific as the regal yet haunted (in maybe more ways than one) Ayres matriarch.
The stately Hundreds Hall is also a terrific trump card for the film. It is endlessly atmospheric, whether seen in its heyday or its shabby nadir. This is a locale that cries out to be haunted, if it isn’t already. Even though it is not intended as a straight horror film, there is still some spooky stuff going on, particularly the business involving the servants summoning bells. It is subtle, but effective. Highly recommended as a genre film for viewers of PBS’s Masterpiece and equivalent British period dramas, The Little Stranger opens today (8/31) at several New York theaters, including the Regal E-Walk.