“A house with a death in it can never again be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts who have stayed behind.”
Stephen King is the undisputed champ of New England horror; so thoroughly owning the gothic chilliness of the United States’ Northeastern region that he consequently created his own fictional haunted towns before burning them to the ground. Many have tried to capture the same eerie aura of King’s Castle Rock and Derry, Maine-set novels, but most have failed; meager stabs at establishing themselves within a horror subset that was previously possessed by H.P. Lovecraft’s Providence-born Otherness. Thankfully, Oz Perkins has taken up their mantle cinematically, having already crafted the superbly eerie February (now inexplicably retitled The Blackcoat’s Daughter and still hanging in release purgatory) – a snowbound story of Satanism run amok at a girls’ boarding school. It’s a bleak, sad, episodic affair that doesn’t quite congeal into a cohesive whole, but shows enough moody promise to keep horror freaks salivating for the debut director’s next work.
Perkins’ follow up, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, is a similar tale of isolation; this time in a looming, Massachusetts estate. Like many of King’s stories, it revolves around a novelist who may have tapped into a paranormal force during their fictional pursuits. Only Perkins’ second movie makes a fatal misstep in its heady rejection of pulp trappings. Using the invented best seller as a jumping off point, Pretty Thing is an exploration of the cyclical trauma each of a haunted house’s occupants endures, courtesy of a crime committed on its premises ages ago. Narrative doesn’t matter as much as the hanging veil of dread that’s bestowed upon those who try to comprehend the previous tenant’s grisly end – a finale the author (Paula Prentiss) omitted from her novel “The Lady in the Walls” out of respect for the fallen. Sadly, this rather brazen denunciation of its own genre only leads to amped up ambiance and a lot of anticipation for catharsis that never comes. While many will certainly cling to Perkins’ playfulness with expectations as a reason to champion Pretty Thing, the movie ultimately amounts to little more than a stylistic exercise in which almost nothing transpires, both in terms of action or emotional release.
“The pretty thing you are looking at is me,” says a hospice nurse (Ruth Wilson) in ethereal, hyper-ornate voiceover. “Of this I am sure. My name is Lily Saylor…three days ago I turned twenty-eight years old. I will never be twenty-nine years old.” It’s an incredible introduction to our lead, as her eyes break the fourth wall, staring not just at us…but perhaps beyond our own mortal plane. The announcement is almost confrontational in tone – daring the audience to come along with Lily as she takes up a position to help ease the ailing scribe, Iris Blum (Prentiss), into the afterlife. In a way, it almost feels as if Lily herself has entered a state of limbo, where the living, the dying, and the ghosts who have already endured both are bound to intersect. Even the time period in which Perkins’ picture takes place is unclear thanks to the antiquated nature of the old house’s technology and decor. The lonely television captures faint transmissions via rabbit ears. The phone operates on a rotary dial and long cord that stretches across the kitchen. A wooden dining room chair is hung upside down mere inches from the ceiling. All of these meticulously arranged minutiae operate in harmony to create an acute sense of disorientation, as we’re trapped here with Lily and her patient for the next year, while another set of eyes peer in at us from across the threshold of mortality.
Like February, Perkins constructs a narrative that is never truly linear, but rather hazily elliptical in nature. Flashbacks, memories, and passages from Blum’s most famous novel dissolve into one another until we’re immersed in the history of a house that is simultaneously happening now, already lived, and then fictionally recreated. From the moment they first interact, Iris refers to Lily as Polly, the main character from “The Lady in the Walls”. Lily has never read more than nine pages of all the books Ms. Blum has written, but after an inquiry into Polly’s identity with the head of the house’s estate (an always welcome Bob Balaban) she decides to crack one of the copies in Iris’ office and brave being scared out of her wits. Unfortunately, this is when Perkins’ film begins to slide off the rails, as he never seems to display a desire for literalness. Instead, the audience is left to decipher just what is real, what is recalled, and what is invented. The entire movie is analogous to a sleepwalking state of opaque, sinister contemplation on the nature of death and what it bequeaths the living (the movie is dedicated to Perkins’ famous father, Anthony, who left him “an old house”). The amalgam of perspectives cannot be parsed, much to the movie’s detriment.
To be fair, Pretty Thing may not be a filmic puzzle that needs to be “solved”. Instead, Perkins has invited us to enjoy the stillness of a New England afternoon following a rainstorm, where the static energy of an ancient home may be supernaturally generated. Is that black mold forming on the walls a result of moisture, or the soul of a departed woman, clinging to the structure out of desperation? Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood exploits shafts of lights that beam in through both circular and rectangular windows, capturing the dust and spirits that float through them like indefinable entities. Likewise, Wilson’s oft-solitary performance strives for a similar essence of inertia, as if she’s constantly held in place by the ghosts whose history she strives to grasp. Regrettably, Perkins undoes his own ambition with scattered moments of haunted house jumps, utilizing the aforementioned phone cord to jolt Lily and the audience – a reminder of the horror film tropes the writer/director is otherwise ridding himself of. In short, the commitment to aura isn’t matched by a similar desire for consistency. Like King (who had a notorious reputation for failing to “stick the landing”), we get a defined sense of place, but often find the storyline lacking.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is available to stream on Netflix right now.