“Tell me you miss me.”
A creeping, creepy ghost story dripping with dread, Osgood Perkins’ I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is like a long-lost Shirley Jackson story brought to life. Described by Perkins as “almost a horror film”, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is less The Shining and more The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That is, the film has all the energy of a lazy, rainy autumn day. I mean that as a compliment.
Ruth Wilson is Lily, a hospice nurse, arrives at a large New England house to care for Iris Bloom (Paula Prentiss). Iris was a novelist of famous — and scary — stories, but now she slowly ticks out her days in a state of near-dementia. Right from the start, we know things don’t look good for Lily. She’s just turned 28, and she warns us less than two minutes into the film, “I will never be 29.”
Lily has a nervous temperament; her literate narration suggests a very proper, and very sheltered, individual. She’s too afraid to have ever read one of Iris’ novels, and jumps at shadows. As her bad luck would have it, there are a lot of shadows in Iris’ house. And they don’t stay still. Iris keeps mistakenly referring to Lily as “Polly” — the name of the ghost in one her more famous novels. Lily decides to crack the spine of the book in question — ominously titled The Lady in the Walls — and get to the bottom of things.
That’s the long and short of it. Perkins’ set-up is very basic, but what makes his film so effective is how he draws on literary inspirations — from Henry James to the aforementioned Shirley Jackson — to build up a familiar, engrossing ghost story. Perkins keeps things almost comically low-key — there are long stretches of silence here. But the silence just helps to build up all that dread, to the point where it’s almost unbearable. It effectively puts us in Lily’s poor, terrified mind-set. Soon we’re just as nervous as she is.
Wilson makes for a fun heroine. She’s neither plucky nor helpless; rather, she’s a reserved, easily spooked individual who just happens to have the bad luck of setting up shop in a haunted house. Unlike other ghost films, where the main characters are either seeking out spirits or instantly skeptical, Wilson’s Lily is reluctantly stuck in the middle of a tale of terror.
A jangling piano-based score by Perkins’ brother Elvis Perkins provides suitable tension, and dreamy, haunting cinematography from Julie Kirkwood paints a remarkably spooky picture. The blurry, liquid-like ghosts that Perkins and Kirkwood capture on film are chilling in ways few cinematic specters are.
There are no jump-scares here. No standard horror beats. Nothing to please a rowdy teenage audience. Instead, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House relies on intelligence and dread. This is the cure for the stupid, generic horror film.
This review was originally published on September 15, 2016.