Osgood Perkins strays far from mainstream normalities with his more “intellectual” approach to horror (you’ll understand once The Blackcoat’s Daughter releases this Fall). Technically, I wouldn’t even call I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House a horror movie – more a chilling page-turner, like some visual representation of written word. Jump-scares and tropes are thrown away for artistic reverence, basing tension on our comprehension of the path laid by a cryptic narration.
Scenes don’t just play out, they’re explained through wordy prose by a character who insists she’ll be dead by the time Perkins draws his final scene. That’s not a spoiler, it’s the confirmed trajectory from the protagonist’s first spoken lines. This is one of those brainier, more ambitious takes on dreamy thrills, which will remain divisive amongst genre audiences – with your reaction resting solely on your appreciation for dry, wait-all-movie-for-one-payoff brand shocks.
In any case, Ruth Wilson stars as a young hospice nurse named Lily. Her latest patient is novelist Iris Bloom (Paula Prentiss), whose secluded old house will unfortunately serve as Lily’s tomb – but not right away. Lily has plenty of time to care for Iris, and read some of her works while walking around the whole house. In one of Bloom’s novels, there’s a character named Polly (Lucy Boynton) who she continues to call for in her confused state, so Lily gives the story a read. It spooks her, but helps explain the presence that might currently be residing in Bloom’s estate as a ghostly apparition. Nights and days pass, playing host to strange noises and female forms lurking in the background. As Lily says, humans don’t technically own a house, we just rent it from the dead. Well, looks like she’ll be the next landowner of the Bloom estate, and this is the story of how she becomes just another rotting spirit.
The strange narrative structure of I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House does something special in its up-front confessions, but also works against itself when establishing suspense. We learn Lily’s fate before Perkins is even able to establish conflict, tinging the air with the sting of inconsequence. Lily’s story draws inspiration from Bloom’s writing, as beginnings and endings work to meet in the middle – yet there’s a reason why literature and cinema are two separate creative entities. The whole “Lily narrates her death” angle is subtly unsettling upon opening monologues, but as time wears on, poetic gestures turn into gimmicks and a calming sense of unrest manifests into weightless walks around an empty, creeky house.
Ruth Wilson is both strong enough to hold Perkins’ film by herself, yet a tad overwhelming in the way she speaks to inanimate objects. The camera is fixated on Wilson and only Wilson for at least 80% of the film, which means she’s forced to carry dialogue by herself. She talks on the phone with a certain cutesy vocabulary and chats with Iris Bloom despite a lack of understanding, but other scenes simply have her scolding broken TV sets or whispering to flowers. They’re one-sided conversations that add nothing but an overplayed sense of theatrics, unnatural in their certain sense of dissipating sanity. Wilson is bubbly and vivacious when she has to be, but the way her lonely housesitter is crafted makes for unsustainably dry spells of timeline-twisting plotted blurriness.
As Perkins navigates Lily’s story, he slowly and noticeably loses control. Opening shots are tense and inviting for horror fans, as a single flashlight ring pans an empty room while the motivations of ghouls are discussed by Lily’s voice. A recurring vision of a distorted apparition continually haunts Perkins’ establishing shots, but as time rolls on – and Lily still lives – momentum and pace become ambition’s worst enemy. The longer Lily stays alive, the more of a lurching task this wistful genre lullaby becomes. Perkins’ style is that of a higher-class ambition to thrill, but posed questions about mortality begin to blend into a pulsating mass of ideas with nowhere to grow.
If you enjoyed February during last year’s festival run (before it became The Blackcoat’s Daughter), chances are you’ll be digging Osgood Perkins’ even moodier sophomore effort. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House wavers in and out of consciousness as Lily shuffles forward towards her pre-determined fate, showing more enthusiasm in creative representation than straight-forward thrills. Although, the issue here isn’t ambition – it’s a lack of staying power in Perkins’ bone-dry, whimpering campfire story. A few images sear with the burning sensation of undead terror, but that only accounts for a few short minutes of an otherwise more-daunting-than-it-should-be cinematic exploration of death. There may be a pretty thing that lives in the house, but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy finding it – even though some of you absolutely will! And to those people, I wish I could share your excitement…
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is a slow-burn with a wonky structure, working backwards in a way that unfortunately mars any possible tension.