Oz Perkins’ slow-burning haunted house drama I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House casts a powerful spell
In the opening moments of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, writer/director Oz Perkins (son of the late, great actor and sometime director Anthony Perkins) makes it clear what kind of ghost story he’s aiming to sculpt. This is no jump-scare, teen-bait multiplex horror movie with spectral threats wreaking havoc on the homes of the living. No, far from it. Rather, the movie itself is a ghost, every frame of it, haunted. As a blurred image of a Victorian lady slowly turns to face us, the audience, and actress Ruth Wilson reads Perkins’ eloquent prose as the camera prowls the hallways and walls of the looming house of the title, we become hypnotized, like we’re trapped in that place with the vacant characters who drift through it. And for 85 minutes, Perkins refuses to break that spell. And God bless him for it.
Pretty Thing is Perkins’ second feature film, following the acclaimed February (aka The Blackcoat’s Daughter), which like this film also premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, only last year in fact. February was an atmospheric, restrained work as well, but it’s an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba compared to this. Pretty Things is almost pornographic in its portent, every second of it seductive and ripe with tension, promising money shots that never come. And that’s what makes it so perfect; those small moments that feel like mammoth rewards, the ways in which Perkins makes the viewer work for gratification. The film stars Wilson (Luther, The Affair) as Lily, a hospice nurse who takes the job of caring for an elderly and demented horror writer (played by the amazing and semi-retired Paula Prentiss as a kind of quote of iconic Gothic horror writer Shirley Jackson but whose name – Iris Blum – is a bit of a poke at Blumhouse honcho Jason Blum). The batty scribe keeps calling the nurse Polly, who is in fact a character from one of Blum’s most popular novels. Lily reads said book and becomes lost in its narrative, the likes of which is realized for us in some effective asides, and soon, what’s happening on page begins to affect what’s happening in the real world.
But what is the real world?
Perkins isn’t really interested into offering any sort of clearly-defined answers to that question, which makes the movie incredibly refreshing. It’s a tone poem really, with very little spoken dialogue and instead it comes wrapped in Wilson’s lyrical narration, making the entire thing feel like you’re watching a book come to lurid life. Wilson, with her pursed lips and leering gaze, is perfect in the role and supporting turns by the aforementioned Prentiss and the inimitable Bob Balaban (Midnight Cowboy, Altered States) as Wilson’s employer add dynamic and arch strength to the story. Incidentally, years ago, Balaban directed his own horror film, 1989’s underrated blackly comic Parents. That film suggested that a 1950s-based little boy’s mom and dad might actually be flesh eating monsters… or maybe it’s just that the boy himself is disturbed. Like Pretty Thing, Parents offered no satisfying resolution, leaving its audience confused and disoriented. And haunted.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House won’t be suited to all tastes. And that’s why it’s great. It’s uncompromising. And it cements Perkins as one of the most exciting architects of intelligent, artful genre films working today.