I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE Review
Director: Osgood Perkins
It’s a rare delight to find a horror film that willfully avoids its genres conventions. Even with the recent uptick in great independent horror films, from THE WITCH to IT FOLLOWS, viewers haven’t had the pleasure of watching a horror film that almost completely inverts our understanding of what is scary. With I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE, director Osgood Perkins has teamed up with Netflix to deliver a slow-burn horror film that fuses the internal, dreamlike qualities of Bergman’s PERSONA with Polanski’s paranoid understanding of mental degradation. It’s not always engaging, but when it works, I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE is the closest property viewers will get to a new feature-length David Lynch film. Having said that, though its aesthetics are certainly something to write home about, anyone that isn’t a horror-film diehard need not apply.
Following the story of a hospice nurse that’s assigned to take care of an elderly pulp author, Perkins sets out to show his protagonists’ mental deterioration. While the deceptively traditional home doesn’t seem to indicate any malicious entity, that’s exactly what the film wants you to understand. This is not a James Wan horror film. I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE does away with the conventions of Blumhouse horror films by rooting its terror in the mundane. Never will the image of an upside down chair send chills down your spine like here. This accomplishment is almost entirely in thanks to long wide shots and the film’s unrelenting tension. Nothing truly menacing ever happens in Perkins film, and as such, you horrify yourself on a meta-level.
A mirror scene with no mirror scare!
What’s more, Perkins’s film is terrifyingly potent in tone. Quietly haunting its viewer from a distant realm, we open on the image of our titular “pretty thing,” a woman whose face is outstretched and blurry. She isn’t here to jump scare us. She is here to tell us her story. It is our own fear of the unknown that petrifies us. Perkins approaches horror distinctly and uniquely with his film. This isn’t about running for your life and screaming back in defense. I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE is about the creaking wooden flooring and the rusty pipes that make an unfamiliar environment all the more daunting. The impeccable sound design and the textured score multiply the depth of this experience, and while Perkins’s film may just be the most effective technical horror exercise of the year, it finds itself in desperate need of a writer.
The fact of the matter remains that I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE does not have a worthwhile narrative structure, so much so that I wonder why Netflix greenlit the film in the first place. Ruth Wilson and Paula Prentiss, although perfectly serviceable on their own, never get to interact as patient and caretaker a la PERSONA or MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Perkins’s narrative establishes a layered backstory for its spirit, using elegant cinematography to effectively build tension through world building. But our characters are never given the same treatment. Ruth Wilson and Bob Balaban share brief sequences together that delightfully hearken back to the off-kilter dynamics of SILENT HILL 2 and David Lynch, but they don’t indicate any sense of depth that helps us understand more about the underbelly of these character’s psyches.
I’M GOIN’ TO TOWN EITHER WAY!
Wilson’s encounters with the spirit are the film’s evident highlights. The fact that Perkins opts for silence more often than noise is a brilliant inverse of what viewers have come to expect. A sequence involving a telephone cord and another involving a static television represent brief instances of oozing discomfort. Wilson plays her character with such an oddball sensibility that she’s almost pitiful to watch. Sadly, this also means that her deterioration is rendered invisible, because she can be written off as wacky from the moment she appears on screen. We never get to understand what drives Wilson, and thus have no choice but to just use her as a surrogate for the entire film. While this certainly doesn’t keep the film from being terrifying, Wilson’s poetic voice overs serve little purpose outside of being spooky in their own right. Nonetheless, Wilson’s only on-screen scream might just be the single most fright-inducing experience I’ve ever had in a movie theatre.
I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE is perhaps the most tonally exciting horror film I have seen in years. It doesn’t hold a candle to THE WITCH or UNDER THE SHADOW when it comes to its merits as an overall film, but its understanding of where horror needs to go to reinvent itself is on the cusp of the revolutionary. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Perkins filmmaking unprecedented, because 2012’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO had already made a point to start paying closer attention to meticulous sound design. Sadly, I worry that its merits will be lost on a streaming platform like Netflix. This is a film that demands a great sound system and a massive screen. It’s gorgeous and grabs you by the collar, but it might lose a great deal of its panache on a television. Nonetheless, there is an understanding of primal fears and a beautiful rendering of our most trivial nightmares that makes this one of the most skin-crawling horror experiences I’ve had this year. I can’t begin to articulate how excited I am to see what Perkins does next, because for a horror fan, this film might just be the prettiest little gem that lives in your Netflix cue.