Powerful performances drive gothic horror film ‘The Little Stranger’

Charlotte Rampling in a scene from “The Little Stranger.” (SOURCE: Focus Features)

Something is haunting the once-grand but now decrepit Hundreds Hall mansion in the English countryside.

Madness creeps in on one of the few remaining occupants of the house. A door slams with startling force. Mysterious etchings carved into the wood appear out of nowhere. A mother claims she is in communication with her long-dead daughter.

Blood is spilled.

Much of what transpires in “The Little Stranger” is inexplicable and seemingly of supernatural origin, but as we sink deeper and deeper into the morass, we begin to wonder just what kind of ghost story is unfolding. Does the source of evil exist in the misty beyond? Or could there be another, perhaps even more horrifying, explanation?

Based on a gothic horror novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, “The Little Stranger” is a cold and creepy little gem, delivered with a precise touch by director Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”) and featuring powerfully effective performances by the tight ensemble, including Domhnall Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter.

At times, each of the main characters has us wondering what’s going on beneath the surface. Who, if anyone, is to be trusted? Who is so damaged as to be beyond salvation? Who is acting on motivations we don’t yet understand?

It’s the summer of 1948 in Warwickshire, England. Young Dr. Faraday (Gleeson) has been summoned to Hundreds Hall, the once-grand home of the aristocratic Ayres family.

Faraday is greeted by Roderick Ayres (Poulter), who was badly injured in the war, as evidenced by a scar covering much of his face and neck, and the pronounced limp with which he walks.

Faraday says he understands that one of the maids has taken ill, says Faraday.

Ayres lets out a little grunt of a laugh. “ONE of the maids?” he asks.

Turns out Betty (Liv Hill) is the last bit of help in a house that once employed as many servants as you’d see on a typical episode of “Downton Abbey.” Now there are just four people living on the estate: Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), the family matriarch; her daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson); Caroline’s brother, Roderick, and poor Betty, who apparently is faking the illness just so she’ll have an excuse to get out of this depressingly dark mansion and away from these profoundly unhappy people.

Good luck with that, Betty. If Mrs. Ayres says you’re needed, you’re needed, and there’s no point trying to stand up to her.

Turns out this isn’t Dr. Faraday’s first visit to Hundreds Hall.

Decades ago, when the estate was in full blossom and the Ayreses were at their shiniest and most prosperous, little Faraday was among the commoners invited to spend a day on the grounds as part of a grand celebration. (Not that commoners were allowed into the actual home. The grounds out front would do just fine for these people.)

That day had a profound and lasting effect on Faraday, who is still awestruck by the Ayres family, even after all these years and with so many layers of dust coating the mansion and so many setbacks weighing so heavily on Mrs. Ayres and her two grown children.

Faraday offers to treat Roderick; he believes there’s new technology that could lessen the excruciating pain in Roderick’s leg and help him get about more efficiently. His frequent visits to the estate lead to a friendship and possibly more with Caroline, who seems trapped in a time warp, unable to carve out a life of her own because her demanding mother and her physically and emotionally damaged brother need her.

Even though Faraday is the one who comes from nothing and Caroline grew up with wealth and education and sophistication, it’s Faraday who dresses impeccably, comports himself like a gentleman and is robotically rigid, while Caroline dresses in unflattering pants and bulky shirts and always looks like she hasn’t bothered to take a bath after spending a day in the fields.

Horrible things happen at Hundreds Hall. A dinner party goes wrong in a grotesque manner. (Let’s just say it’s a good thing Dr. Faraday is on hand, or one of the guests might not have recovered from a shocking injury.) Roderick grows increasingly agitated and disoriented. Mrs. Ayres becomes convinced her favorite daughter, who died as a child, is back in the house and is communicating with her.

Meanwhile, Faraday courts Caroline, hoping to marry her, move into Hundreds Hall and help restore the home and the Ayres family to their former greatness. But is that what Caroline wants?

At times “The Little Stranger” is frustratingly vague, and some of the developments don’t add up – until they do, quite nicely and quite eerily.

3 stars

RATED: R (for some disturbing bloody images)

WHEN: Now showing

WHERE: Century Rio 24

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