The genre of The Little Stranger is perhaps up for debate. iMDB.com lists several genres for it: "Drama | Horror | Mystery | Thriller." I would agree with three of those, in that order. I wouldn't call it particularly thrilling.
And I knew nothing of this movie until mere hours before seeing it. I felt like going to see a movie, and did something I very, very rarely do: just looked up what was playing at the theatre I wanted to go to, and made a choice. Okay, I did look it up on the critical aggregate websites, and was satisfied to see it getting generally good reviews. I do rather like Domhnall Gleeson. I don't generally go for horror, but what few things I found online seemed to stress this movie opts more for a mood of impending dread than jump scares. I can go for that.
I did not realize until she showed up in the movie that it also stars Charlotte Rampling, as the mother living in the post-World War I British mansion in which most of it is set. Here is a woman with a bit of dipshittery in interview comments in recent years -- but a great actor. She has a knack for conveying warmth that has a tinge of something sinister just beneath the surface.
Her grown children, Caroline and Roderick (Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter), live with her, along with only one young maid (Liv Hill), in a giant house long since past its prime and now falling into disrepair. Gleeson is Faraday, the son of a former maid in the same house, now a local doctor who comes to meet the Ayres family when called upon to treat Betty the house maid.
The story is told entirely through the eyes of Faraday, who has a vivid memory of once getting inside the house as a child, and how it basically became a mythological place in his mind. As he gets to know the Ayers family, they seem in turn to be going mad. It's well into the film, maybe more than halfway, before it even becomes clear the family lost a young child many years ago, and after a terrible incident with another visiting little girl and the family dog, they become increasingly convinced the deceased daughter is haunting the house.
There is a curious way this story, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and written by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) based on a novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, moves from what seems a straightforward drama tinged with mystery to something closer to mystery-horror. It's fairly gradual. No sudden plot turns. As Faraday holds onto his skepticism, however, we the viewer come to know that certainly something mysteriously horrible is going on, especially in a pivotal scene when the older Mrs. Ayers appears to be attacked by unknown forces in a empty upstairs bedroom. Things get subtly weird.
--Too subtle, arguably. I can get into slow-moving stories when a palpable sense of mood and atmosphere is conjured. The Little Stranger offers some real tension and a certain dread, but none of it as palpable as it could be. Then it ends with a shot ambiguous to the point of being baffling. I basically left the theater thinking, What's that supposed to mean? It seems I was supposed to. Ambiguity can be satisfying, but it isn't particularly here. At least the story still kept me interested the entire time.