In the Gothic post-WWII film “The Little Stranger,” an incident with the family dog is one more tragedy for a once aristocratic family.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Sarah Waters. Ruth Wilson stars as Caroline Ayres, whose dog Gyp, a black Lab, is her only friend at her family’s isolated estate. She lives there with her mother, Angela (Charlotte Rampling) and brother Roderick (Will Poulter), who’s avoided all society after being horribly burned in the war.
As in the book, a party in which the Ayres have opened their now derelict home, possibly with the hopes of making a match for Caroline, goes terribly wrong.
Roddy at first refuses to attend the party, saying he has a feeling something terrible is about to happen, so Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), who’s taken an interest in the family, goes to check on him.
At the disastrous party, a family brings their spoiled eight-year-old daughter, who is at first afraid of Gyp and then won’t leave him alone. We sense something ominous is about to happen when the little girl disappears behind the curtain with the dog.
We hear growling and then terrible screams: The usually gentle dog has horribly mauled the girl’s face.
Dr. Faraday does his best to repair the damage, but it’s clear she’ll be scarred for life. As is the reputation of the already fading Ayres.
In the following scene, Faraday arrives to put poor Gyp down. Caroline is hugging her dog in grief, then heartbrokenly shoves him away, saying, “Stupid dog.”
In another room, Faraday puts the trusting dog to sleep with an injection.
The book, as the film, is vague about the nature of the haunting. If indeed, there is one at all.
Blogger Amy Adams neatly sums up what Gyp’s death represents in the book.
Gyp was never the sort of dog who bit anyone. Of course they felt badly for the girl, and simply cannot understand why Gyp would have behaved that way. There is even the intimation that the old county families would have seen it as an unfortunate accident. The Baker-Halls, however, are threatening to involve the police and want the old dog destroyed. After some objections by the family, eventually they see there is no choice, and Dr. Faraday is asked to “destroy the dog.”
Poor Gyp–not only is he an old dog, Caroline’s sole companion, but he is also a stand in for the very class the Ayres belong to: pedigreed, well-bred, well-trained, amiable and unthreatening. Betty [the maid] blames the dog’s unusual behavior on the “dark thing” in the house that had frightened her before, and Roddy ends up confirming this opinion. What is carefully never articulated is what I assumed: that the foul child had teased and provoked the poor dog until it lost its temper and snapped. She was a thoroughly provoking child, after all, spending nearly the entire time begging for wine and brandy, “which she always drank at home” and insisting that she had a right to smoke if she wanted to and no one could stop her. While the local families were all appalled at her behavior and her parents’ permissiveness, the Baker-Halls simply gave in to her demands. Waters has deftly illustrated the coming social changes, in which the privileges of adulthood were demanded and granted without any of the attendant obligations. And as Waters demonstrates with Gyp, when this licentious behavior creates an unfortunate effect, there is no consequence to the provoker.