Netflix UK film review: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House
Ivan Radford | On 29, Oct 2016
Director: Osgood Perkins
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss
Watch I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House only in the UK: Netflix
“Three days ago, I turned 28,” Lily (Wilson) tells us at the start of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. “I will never be 29.” It’s the kind of statement that makes you think we’re in conventional horror territory. It’s also the most concrete piece of plot we get all movie.
The film, by director Osgood Perkins, is slow-burn to the point of stasis, keeping its audience held in a limbo of eerie atmosphere and uneasy dread. It’s the kind of deliberate approach that saw Perkins’ first film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, generate buzz on the festival circuit last year – in a piece of uncanny timing, that (now renamed February) arrives in the UK on DVD/VOD three days after this sophomore effort hits Netflix – but it’s also something that will likely divide horror fans.
Ruth Wilson, who has only grown more impressive in the years from 2006’s Jane Eyre to Showtime’s The Affair, is fantastic as Lily, a nurse who arrives at the titular house to look after an ageing author, Iris (Paula Prentiss). Iris is known mostly for her novel The Lady in the Walls, in which something bad happens to a young woman in a house. The parallels don’t need to be spelled out further than that and, indeed, it soon becomes clear that Perkins has no interest in doing so: this is a story in which the line between fiction and reality, between the past and present, is blurred to the point of confusion. Who is Lily? Why does Iris call her “Polly”? And does the mould in the hallway betray events that actually happened?
Perkins presents his story with an unwavering, unnerving precision: while we presume this is the present day, the house is adorned with anachronistic appliances, from the old-fashioned telephone to the antiquated cathode ray TV. Even Lily talks in an overly flowery fashion, as if she were a character in a classic text. Once we enter the property, and we don’t leave it for the entire runtime, any sense of time is lost completely, as Perkins places us in the same no woman’s land as his lead.
But while that might conjure up thoughts of a survival thriller, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House proves as obfuscatory as its cumbersome title, spending more time soaking up the claustrophobia than obeying convention – one disturbingly protracted scream and a creepy moment with a telephone aside, this genre flick is largely devoid of jumps, scares or bumps in the night. The most breathtaking event is a simple 90-degree pan that could belong to the calculated hand of a more seasoned director, such as Wes Anderson.
The result feels circular in its crawl through the musty air of looming death, in a way that begins to frustrate as much as intrigue. On the one hand, it’s impressive that there’s so little exposition in the script; on the other hand, it’s a shame to know so little of Lily, apart from one early allusion to her failed love life, that we don’t always feel very engaged in her plight. Compared to the recent French TV series Beyond the Walls, which found infinite ways to freak out and fascinate viewers without leaving a building, there’s a notable lack of, well, anything here. And yet nonetheless, the sound design, the set and Wilson’s expressive, open eyes hold a creepiness that lingers.
“A house with a death in it can never be bought or sold by the living,” Lily tells us, in one of her many literary voiceovers. If only her tale had more substance to deliver on its admirably controlled, ambitiously sparse style. With the launch of dedicated horror VOD service Shudder in the UK, Netflix’s acquisition of this decidedly un-mainstream horror, alongside Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, is an interesting statement of intent from the streaming site. Unfortunately, that, in a way, is the most interesting thing about it.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.