Director – Oz Perkins
Cast – Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Lucy Boynton, Bob Balaban, Brad Milne, Erin Boyes
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
From writer/director Oz Perkins, the son of Psycho actor Anthony Perkins, comes I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. This is his sophomore effort after The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which has achieved good reviews but is still stuck in wide-release limbo. After debuting at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Netflix gave this flick distribution on the 28th of October, just in time for Halloween. I went into this experience unsure of what to expect. The trailer did not give much away, which I liked, but it also did not reel me in either. Now that I have viewed the film I can see why the trailer did not suck me in. There isn’t much going on in the film to begin with. It is well shot, with excellent cinematography, and comes with an ever-present sense of impending dread. These elements kept me in the experience, but the experience isn’t enough of an experience for me.
Ruth Wilson (Luther) stars as Lily, a hospice nurse hired by the by estate of a Iris Blum, an elderly author. After moving into the home she discovers Iris wrote a horror novel named The Lady in the Walls, and begins to suspect that the horrific events taking place in the book took place in the very home she is in.
The film kicks off with this phrase, “A house with a death in it can never again be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed by the ghosts who have stayed behind.” Then, Lily delivers a six-minute monologue where she states to the viewer “The pretty thing that you are looking at is me. Of this I am sure. My name is Lily Saylor. I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago I turned 28 years old. I will never be 29 years old.” Perkins decides to inform us from the get-go that Lily is not going to survive this ordeal. The remaining 80 minutes will be spent wading in anticipation of what is going to happen, and what kind of horror you will be treated to. This sounds like a haunted house film, and it is, but it does not follow established traditions. Sure there are a few notable characteristics of the sub-genre, like mold spreading on the walls and a few cheap spooks, but what made this interesting to me is that this is not a story to be solved by the protagonist. Typically, the lead is forced to solve the home’s haunted past and use that as a key to survival, but you will not see that here. Instead, Perkins toys with the viewer as you already know she is going to die. He focuses on her impending death and the internal battle she had to fight when she was alive. In a sense, you could say it is Lily’s ghost telling this story.
I know this must sound like a character-driven film, but I don’t see it that way. There are only three speaking characters: Lily, Iris, and Mr. Waxcap – the man tasked with handling Iris’ estate. The only other characters in the film are ghosts. Iris does not speak and elects to spend the vast majority of her time in her bedroom. This leaves Lily with an overload of free time, and it also keeps us from learning about her character. Aside from a phone call to a friend, where we learn of her relationship status, there isn’t much more regarding character development. In fact, there isn’t much more to the film, period.
This is a horror film, but don’t go in expecting much horror. We are given a few jump-ish scares here and there, but it is obvious that such things are not Perkins’ intent. Even the internal horror I mentioned earlier is quite tame and moves at a glacial pace. I will not be surprised if viewers find themselves having to decipher what kind of film this is, as it does not fully commit to being a haunted house flick, and does not deliver enough in regards to internal/psychological horror. Simply put, there isn’t much that happens here.
So what does happen? Perkins shows off his skills as a director. He sucks you in right away with gorgeous cinematography that bleeds “this is going to be a ‘slow-burn’ movie”. The setting is wonderful, as the house comes with shadowy corners and creaky floors. We are not given a specified date for when the story occurs, but rotary phones and old televisions with Mickey Mouse antennas indicate it takes place decades ago. As far as the horror goes I feel there is only one good scene, occurring 17 minutes in, and it is probably the least horrific in the end as it does not involve ghosts. The ghost scenes were fair at best because the ghosts were never scary. I did enjoy the creeping camera work that came with these scenes, just not the ghosts themselves. With so few characters, and with most of them not speaking much, actress Ruth Wilson gives a solid performance in a role that consumes the entire film. I would have liked to see her character go through more extremes, like elation to sorrow. Instead, she was pretty nonchalant through this experience, but that lies more on the writing than it does her performance. I was pleased with Perkins’ direction and I foresee him doing well in the genre provided he is given or writes a more productive story.
Overall, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House can go chalked down as a film that is visually great but lacks a convicting story to with it. Those who want to see one of the better-directed films of the year may find some joy in this, but genre fans as a whole will likely leave underwhelmed.