The Little Stranger opens with a camera prowling up the debris-strewn driveway of a decrepit British estate, where evidently something awful has happened.
The prologue will remind you of Rebecca, but The Little Stranger is less a mystery than a full-on ghost story, adapted from the Sarah Waters novel about threadbare aristocrats trying to stave off financial ruin in the postwar England of 1947, dealing with crushing debt and a malicious spirit.
The war has been hard on the Ayers family and their estate, called Hundreds Hall. Its male heir, Roderick (Will Pouter), is a war veteran with serious wounds and probable PTSD. A country doctor named Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called in to treat him, applying cutting-edge circulatory therapy for his legs and tending to maladies that afflict Roderick's mind.
In his deteriorated mental state, Roderick has made bad financial deals, causing Faraday to insinuate himself in the family's affairs – he thinks Roderick is not of sound mind and argues that his decisions should not be binding. This is touchy – Roderick doesn't admit to mental health issues, and Faraday is not being completely honest about his motives. He's taken a liking to Roderick's spinster sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson, bravely wearing costumes that look like something out of Downton Shabby), and begins a courtship. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is still proud enough to be displeased — Faraday's mother was formerly a maid at the estate.
Also not thrilled, not completely, is Caroline herself. There is a curiously desultory air to the courtship, which certainly seems more pushed forward by Faraday's interest than by hers. This leads to the movie's best scene – Faraday and Caroline at a dance, where she encounters a fellow female war volunteer. It's in her company that Caroline has a sparkle that's missing from her time with the glum physician.
Faraday, though, is the kind of guy who can't take a hint, or at any rate, he's not ready to give up on his dream of insinuating himself into the lives of the Ayers family, or perhaps the life of Hundreds Hall, which has mesmerized him since youth. Caroline's indifference is no deterrent, nor is the fact that Hundreds Hall is haunted (the creepy atmospherics of the decaying mansion are effective). Guests are injured, minds are lost, and so are lives.
Waters' novel was content to let the evil within Hundreds Hall remain shapeless and nameless. Director Lenny Abrahamson's (Room) movie wants to give it definite shape, and even a name, though the movie is not better for it. Also, alterations to the story turn the title into a bit of a spoiler.
And you come to share Caroline's disenchantment with Faraday, played by Gleeson as a humorless pest and busybody. As a suitor, he hasn't the ghost of a chance.