Netflix has proven itself the home of indie horror films that are so deep in eeriness and art-house style that critics are afraid to call them anything but “psychological thrillers.”
One of the more recent entries into this expanding range of horror films is 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, directed by Osgood “Oz” Perkins.
The movie centers around “Lily Saylor” (Ruth Wilson), a live-in hospice nurse hired to take care of “Iris Blum” (Paula Prentiss), an elderly dementia patient and former horror writer. Lily lives in Blum’s house for almost a year before some of the tell-tale signs of a spook begin to show up in the rickety old house—unexplained bumping sounds at night and walls growing mold from no apparent source.
Strongest of all, there is a correlation between the spooky signs and a book Blum wrote about “Polly Parsons,” a girl who was murdered in macabre fashion and, to no surprise, begins to appear before Lily in sideways glances and mirror reflections.
The movie has all the classic elements of a good Halloween flick—an old, shadow-riddled house, dark and uncomfortable camera work and Poe-esque scenarios. But, all these appeals, pronounced as they are, will doubtlessly fall flat for many viewers simply because of how familiar they are. It’s nothing new to have a scary house with a dark history or a ghost figure that invisibly prowls the place at night.
Several of the moments in this film border on melodrama with excessive buildup that all leads up to something the viewer probably saw coming three minutes before. It all can feel on the nose sometimes, and the occasional strange, difficult-to-believe behaviors of the protagonist aren’t helpful either.
All of this being said, where Pretty Thing might fail in shock value, it succeeds tenfold in tension and thematic material. I never have been so tense during a film since Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and this is thanks to Perkins’ dread-inducing, Kubrick-esque cinematography, a hollow-sounding and atmospheric score that resembles a broken Steinway piano being played from the bottom of the ocean and, though familiar, a nevertheless genuinely haunting story.
Thematically, the movie is preoccupied with the terrors of womanhood in a world that relentlessly antagonizes the feminine, and it repeatedly forces such questions upon the viewer.
The three women–Lily, Iris and Polly–all have unmistakable parallels between them that defy time, space and the worlds of the living and dead. The ghostly forces that define these relations are as unsettling and difficult to ignore as the anxieties of gender in modern society, and they force the viewer to look at the female characters in relation to the male characters who abandon, exploit or murder them.
This film is not the most revolutionary horror film to come out in recent years, and many will find it too slow and cliché to really have a good experience.
But, for those who enjoy long, slow-building tension, value stimulating and thought-provoking material and are suckers for things that go bump in the night, I will recommend this movie to the grave.