Written and Directed by: Oz Perkins
Starring: Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, and Lucy Boynton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"A house that holds a memory of a death is the staying place of a rotted ghost."
It’s one thing to tell—or even show—an audience that a house is haunted on film. But to make them feel that’s it’s haunted? To create the impression of the overwhelming melancholy and dread of a spirit clinging to the material world in a desperate attempt to hang onto life? That’s another, more daunting task altogether, which is exactly why Oz Perkins’s I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is so impressive. “Sparse” and “minimalist” don’t begin to describe this effort, yet it hangs with a heavy, thick sense of foreboding and despair. It tells us everything we need to know in its opening moments, including its horrific ending, casting an immediate pall over its grim proceedings. Perkins is nothing if not daring in this approach, though it pays off since I Am the Pretty Thing…is quite unlike most haunted house fare.
Consider the opening narration delivered by Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson), who insists that ghosts are in fact real, and we simply borrow the houses that they haunt. In this case, she’s taken up a job as a live-in nurse for reclusive horror writer Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) just after her 28th birthday. She won’t make it to her 29th, she informs us as she walks through the door, effectively sealing her own fate. What she’ll succumb to isn’t exactly a mystery, not when one of the film’s first shot features the fleeting image of the ghost—or the titular pretty thing—already living in the house. It’s the particulars that are uncovered over the next 80 minutes as Lily begins to discover the sordid history resting behind the walls of the place.
The eventual mythology that forms here is of the familiar sort—rest assured that a grisly murder is at the heart of it—but the details hardly seem to be the point. Rather, it’s the manner in which Perkins slowly unravels it that’s noteworthy—this is a measured, deliberate unveiling, one that creates the impressionistic ghost story. Despite Lily’s almost constant narration, the film doesn’t spell out every explicit detail as it sifts through the layers of trauma and agony that still linger in the house. Striking images—an ominously folded lily in the page of a book, the fleeting glimpse of a reflection in a television set—craft an elliptical narrative that’s appropriately ephemeral. An effective ghost story should float on a haze and remain somewhat elusive, and I love that I Am the Pretty Thing…allows its empty spaces to hover uneasily.
What’s certainly unmistakable here is the oppressive inevitability of death. Given what we know of her fate, Lily is practically a ghost already, a transient spirit floating through this house on borrowed time. Escape is impossible, and the manner in which her fate unfolds slowly and unremarkably is unsettling: her imminent death is stated as a matter of fact and then treated as such. We watch as she goes about her mundane routine—futzing with an uncooperative TV, returning Mrs. Blum to her room when she wanders through the house—resigned to what will become of her. This is a reminder that death doesn’t always come swiftly: sometimes, it chooses to smother slowly and insidiously as we live our unassuming lives. Perkins has fashioned a crucible out of a haunted house here, as the walls—and all their sordid history—slowly move in on Lily, bringing with them a perceptible despair. No matter what she does, her fate is destined to be sealed in the once blood-stained walls of a house whose spirits will never rest.
Perkins’s meticulous lens captures it all with an uneasy stillness. Rarely does his camera move, as he prefers to fix his gaze on Lily and her haunting surroundings in a manner that almost feels invasive. We know we will watch this girl die, and that’s all we can do: gaze intently, with each development—no matter how negligible—doubling as another turn of the screw. For all its familiarity, I Am The Pretty Thing…is a visually striking film that realizes the power of economical images. Though Perkins gives up his ghost early on, he’s in no hurry to dwell on it—we catch a glimpse here or there, and perhaps witness the spirit’s days when it was among the living during flashbacks, but it’s largely a presence that’s felt more than seen.
Even more of a presence is Lily herself. Wilson is magnetic in what is ultimately a bizarre role: there’s something weirdly anachronistic about Lily, even if the film doesn’t quite set a definite time period. Most of the aesthetic choices—the television set, a lack of cell phones , car styles—point to this not being modern day, and Wilson’s appropriately off-kilter turn (particularly her accent) hearkens back to the type of performances you might find around the middle of the 20th century. There’s an obviously naïve lilt to her voice that’s endearing, and even though she’s 28, she patters away on the phone, chatting about boys like a teenager. It only serves to heighten how fucked up it is that this terminally nice girl will meet such a horrible end.
Such a mannered performance is exactly in keeping with Perkins’s general aesthetic here—it’s another meticulously crafted embellishment on what is ultimately an exquisitely furnished haunted house movie. I Am the Pretty Thing…is paradoxically ornate and sparse: it feels very much in the vein of elaborately staged gothic productions like The Haunting and The Innocents, only it’s couched in a rural, rustic environment. It’s Henry James and Charlotte Perkins Gilman with a twinge of southern gothic, resulting in a film that’s tempting to criticize as “style over substance;” however, this is a case where the style is the substance since it forms the crux of the effectiveness here. I Am the Pretty Thing… doesn’t move with a sense of urgency but rather with a sense of inevitability: the patient, measured approach might mean this is a film where the discovery of a mold registers as a major event, but it also means it’s the sort of film that creeps up on you and then lingers.
Having seen this, I’m even more eager to check out Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter (aka February), which actually premiered at various festivals to much acclaim—only to be unceremoniously dumped onto VOD platforms recently. This one, on the other hand, has been readily available via Netflix streaming since November. Wait until sundown and let it start digging under your skin.
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