Release: Friday, October 28, 2016 (Netflix)
Written by: Oz Perkins
Directed by: Oz Perkins
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House plays out as a chilly haunted house thriller with a literary twist. It’s something a writer might gravitate towards given the film’s concept-heavy plot, but an over-reliance on mood and atmosphere, not to mention some really pretentious dialogue, also make it something horror fans or fans of interesting movies in general are bound to reject.
Oz Perkins’ sophomore feature is the epitome of style over substance, but the style is actually pretty effective . . . for about 45 minutes. Throughout this slow-burning thriller viewers must contend with ghostly spirits, lots of things moving in slow-motion, artsy shots of a creepy home and its interior, and yes, the aforementioned Cormac McCarthy-syndrome — characters saying (or thinking) things that may sound nice and look snazzy on paper, but that ultimately come across as pretentious and unnatural. Pretty Thing (I think it’s unreasonable to expect me to keep writing out the full title) is actually just that — it’s a pretty thing; it looks good and occasionally, almost haphazardly, its brooding atmosphere leads us into a dark place that we want to immediately retreat from.
A meek and mild-mannered Ruth Wilson plays a live-in nurse hired to take care of a horror author named Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) in her dying days. Blum has been cooped up in a creaky 18th Century home that may or may not have a lot of spooky history attached to it. Blum’s estate manager Mr. Waxcap (a name almost as good as that of the actor playing the part, the one and only Bob Balaban) encourages Lily to read some of her work, in particular a story that seems to be based on a murder that occurred in this very house. But Lily scares easily so she is unable to get into the book.
As weeks turn into months Lily begins experiencing strange occurrences. She’s seeing weird things and her patient keeps calling her Polly, a character out of that very book Mr. Waxcap recommended she read, The Lady in the Walls. A nasty mold has also started to form on one of the walls downstairs. In the film’s opening voiceover we are told that a house with a death in it can never be bought or sold, it can only be borrowed by the living from the ghosts who remain in it. It’s like some sort of paranormal etiquette: you can sleep in the bed and use the kitchen but we the dead remain the key holders.
Our protagonist isn’t exactly well-developed but we do know that she doesn’t seem to mind being in isolation. We also know she’s sensitive to things that go bump in the night and rarely does she seem to be in control of things. Which just begs the question: what on earth is someone like this doing in this place? Why would you take this job? Often it can be fun watching a character well out of their depth contend with threats, but in this case the contrast seems a bridge too far. Also, how does someone who works in palliative care, scare so easily? Isn’t being perpetually surrounded by death more terrifying? Also also: why am I looking for the logic in a horror film?
Despite its elegance — the likes of which struck me as a hybrid of Alejandro Amenábar’s classic creeper The Others and Jonathan Glazer’s challenging psychodrama Under the Skin — Pretty Thing allows the mind to wander far too often. It is good at building tension and suggesting horrors that may or may not be there (which is my nice way of saying the film’s mythology becomes confusing and in a hurry) but the spirits that plague this cinematic universe are really just thinly sketched archetypes all dressed up with no place to go.
Recommendation: A film that tries to engage the intellect but falls short with an often infuriating lack of ‘action’ and a glacial pace. Ruth Wilson’s performance is solid which helps keep the viewer engaged but in the end there is so much left to be desired when everything wraps up. I am already well on my way to forgetting this one unfortunately. Though I can’t say definitively if I have been so put off by it that I never want to go near it again. It might be worth a revisit some day.
Running Time: 87 mins.
Quoted: “I am very seldom required to wear white by my employers. But, anyway, I always do. It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched. Even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw.”
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