The director of Room and Frank goes into horror with The Little Stranger – movie review


When a filmmaker makes a fantastically quirky debut movie that soon develops a cult following and, two years after, his next film – an intense, marvellous drama – gets nominated at the Oscars, you’d expect his third feature to be amazing.

Yet, seeing Lenny Abrahamson trying his hands at the horror genre, backed up by a solid cast, is really exciting on paper.

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Domhnall Gleeson in The Little Stranger

Being familiar with the director’s previous works I somewhat knew what to expect in terms of pacing and presentation going into The Little Stranger: set in 1948, this is a (very) slow-burner that centres around Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson of Ex Machina and Mother! fame), who makes a house call to Hundreds Hall, a decaying mansion where the remaining members of the Ayres family reside. Showing a fascination for the house since he was a little and poor child, Faraday doesn’t mind sticking around Rod (played by Will Poulter – Detroit), Mrs Ayres (the great Charlotte Rampling) and, mostly, Caroline (Ruth Wilson – I’m the Little Creature that Lives in the House, among many other titles).

Problem, though, the family seems afflicted by both war-related dramas and obscure presences: more specifically, each one of the family members and even the servants experience the same entity in different ways. For Rod it’s fire, for the matriarch it’s her dead child, for the servant a monster and so on.

Continue reading and check my final grade below… 

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As I said before, however, this being an Abrahamson’s movie there’s no room for typical horror clichés related to a haunted house. In fact, The Little Stranger takes inspiration from horror conventions (such as an isolated location, a creepy mansion that has locked doors everywhere, paranormal occurrences mostly in the night…) and turns them into something unexpected and somewhat unpredictable.

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Most of the scenes with wide angles in The Little Strangers look like paintings

Another aspect that’s undoubtedly worth praising consists of the camera-work: this director is a great visual storyteller and his latest movie is no exception. Loads of close-ups generate an uneasy feeling in the viewer, which contrasts with the neat and almost always symmetrical shot composition.

The visuals in The Little Stranger strongly enhance every single character’s emotions: everyone here gives a great performance, with Gleeson being the highlight. I didn’t think the guy could pull off another outstanding performance as he did in Ex Machina, but here he probably surpasses himself. This film is as much about the house as it is about Faraday: he’s a complexed character who starts off in a way and, by the end of the movie, is completely different, in the creepiest way imaginable. Abrahamson proves once again to be a master at crafting the arc of his main characters, since Faraday feels truly real, almost tangible.

I’ve been highly praising The Little Stranger so much, because this film has qualities that can’t be denied by whoever approaches it unbiasedly – even though some people will find it boring and dull, I’m sure about it.

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Probably the only physically violent scene in The Little Stranger

However, to me The Little Stranger was also very underwhelming. First of all, the movie has been mismarketed as a mystery/horror film, whereas it’s definitely more of a psychological and supernatural drama/thriller with sparse hints of horror. This is not the film’s fault, though, so I won’t downgrade it for that.

What I will downgrade it for is the lack of a compelling story and peaks in pacing. Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, the story here is shorten to a point where it seems really barebone and uninteresting. If you combine that with the excruciating length of certain scenes (all of which could’ve been cut short without losing any of the impact), the whole movie experience seems kind of pointless and drawn out.

Yet, The Little Stranger is too evenly paced, which means that there’s no sense of urgency nor dreadful feel to be found. Very much like Marrowbone – which also came out this year and was also made by a great filmmaker – this film takes too long to get to the mind-blowing ending, to the point that you just want the movie to finished as opposed to being exciting for the big reveal.

Also, the story – both in the book and the film – has a very powerful meaning, but the director decided to have most of the events (including the explanation of the ending!) narrated by a voiceover. This is a very poor choice that completely defeats the purpose of any slow-burner, which should consist of the viewer paying attention to details in order to understand what’s going on underneath the surface.

Most likely, fans of Abrahamson and horror moviegoers who don’t mind sitting through a slow-paced drama/mystery/thriller will find at least something to like here. However, I wouldn’t recommend The Little Stranger to straight-up horror fans and I as well was left quite disappointing and frustrated.

The Little Stranger                            6.5/10