October Horrorshow: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Horror flicks don’t get much more atmospheric than writer/director Osgood Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. There is so much dim lighting and soft focus in this film that it’s impossible to watch in a lighted room. I suppose that’s a good thing. The overall darkness of the film forces a viewer to watch it in a more immersive fashion. In many places, a viewer must pay closer attention to the screen than they otherwise would. It almost feels like we are having our senses piqued by the movie, deliberately, so that should Perkins feel that is the right moment for a scare, viewers are physically primed to feel the effect to the fullest.

Ruth Wilson stars as Lily Saylor, a hospice nurse hired to live with and care for Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss), a former writer of horror novels who is suffering from dementia. Lily provides voiceover narration for the film, as well. Like many voiceovers, it could be excised from the film and have little effect on a viewer’s ability to follow the plot. Unlike others, though, this voiceover lives well on its prose. Perkins uses the voiceover for some exposition combined with observations about life, death, fate, beauty, and many other subjects. It’s an exploration of the character of Lily that, while supplementary to the action on the screen, does far more than just fill the quiet spots in the film with words.

Iris lives in an old house in Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful remainder of colonial New England, so of course it’s haunted. On her very first night in the house Lily can feel the creepiness. In fact, every night in this house is creepy. What lights there are do a poor job of piercing the dark. No matter where Lily wanders in the house Perkins and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood make sure there is a darkened doorway or window lurking over the shot. Anything could be in there, and sometimes is.

This movie is just about a solo show for Wilson. Iris is mostly bedridden and with few lines, leaving Wilson to do all the exploration necessary for a ghost film. Being on her own most of the time, we get to see Wilson exercise her acting chops to the full. I had thought she was professional and above average in the television series Luther, in which she has a co-starring role. This performance is better. Her character is quiet and reserved, yet there’s quite a bit of emotion to Wilson’s performance. One gets the sense that there’s some insanity lurking behind Lily’s façade, yet I don’t think the script called for it. She sees the world differently. It might be sociopathy, or something else. Whatever it is, Wilson made Lily abnormal enough to be unsettling.

In the past, I’ve written about ghost films that they all lose their ability to frighten at some point, usually because too much gets shown onscreen and the audience becomes inured. Perkins got around that problem by not showing an awful lot, and not escalating the supernatural occurrences. Think Poltergeist, where the specters started by whispering through a television speaker and progressed to blowing up a neighborhood. Most ghost films follow a progression whereby the disturbances grow in strength, but that’s never made sense were one to think about it. These ghosts have usually been haunting these houses for decades. They should be able to bring the heavy artillery in the first act. Perkins, paradoxically, has made a haunting more realistic by keeping the disturbances of a piece.

This movie is one of the slowest of slow burns I’ve ever seen. If one were not in the mood for a movie that is very deliberate, I’d recommend waiting until the time is right. It requires close attention, which for many films could be a problem in the age of smartphones. All I can say is that this film is worth setting aside the time for. Even with a fare amount of ghost film tropes, Perkins has made a unique and captivating film.