'I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House'
Last TIFF, Osgood Perkins made his directorial debut with the chilly and arty horror yarn ‘February‘ (subsequently retitled ‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’). The film wasn’t perfect, but it showed that the director was capable of the type of mature and thoughtful horror movie that exists far too rarely these days. Now he’s back with ‘I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’, which proves that Perkins’ somber approach to genre is consistent, even if it’s not much of an improvement.
This is a small and subtle scare movie that’s only for those with patience, but they should enjoy feeling their spines slowly tingle. Ruth Wilson stars as Lily, a recently heartbroken nurse hired to look after a dying old woman (Paula Prentiss) in her dusty old house. The old lady used to be a famous horror author, and her most popular book was about the ghost of a Victorian woman she claimed to have met in her home. You can probably guess where things go from there and you’d be both right and wrong. Perkins doesn’t exactly go the conventional route with this one. Even when he does, he usually takes an offbeat path to get there.
The movie is almost without dialogue. The old woman doesn’t talk much and the only other character is Bob Babalan (bringing a whiff of comic relief in his usual neurotic way) playing the representative of the old author’s estate who rarely sticks around long. Wilson mostly narrates either aloud or in voiceover as she wanders through her days and loses her grip on reality while slowly discovering the haunting. This isn’t exactly a jump scare ghost yarn, though. The movie is essentially one long act of sustained tension and anticipation.
That stuff is generally the creepiest part of any haunted house tale and Perkins milks it for all it’s worth. The atmosphere is thick and every shot is carefully controlled to suggest impending horrors. The tale has a psychologically unnerving aspect, as well as some intriguing notions of ghosts that get slowly squeezed out. Performances are excellent. The ghost designs are beautiful. The only thing lacking is a big show-stopping spook-out finale to really sell the thing.
For those who admire the purity of Perkins brand of ambiguity-first genre filmmaking, that’ll be the charm. For everyone else, it can’t help but feel like a mild letdown. At least when Ti West does this stuff, he provides something to justify the wait.