Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
The setup is classic and intriguing: Ruth Wilson (His Dark Materials, Luther) plays a hospice nurse tending to elderly horror author Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss, The Stepford Wives), who comes to mistake her for the main character in her most famous novel—the ghost of Polly Parsons. Parsons supposedly haunts Blum’s historic Massachusetts home and once dictated her own dark tale–save for its ending–to Blum. In writer/director Osgood Perkins’s hands, this classic setup turns into a dark study of isolation and mystery, and showcases the range of Wilson’s talent as an actor. Netflix’s 2016 original production I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House might make for good Halloween viewing for some fans of spooky, atmospheric, and cryptic ghost stories.
The word here is atmosphere. Set vaguely in the last quarter of the 20th century (wall phones, old antenna TVs, and wood-paneled station wagons are our only clues), the film may remind viewers of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (or its recent film adaptation reviewed here at borg). Lily and Iris are completely isolated, and Wilson carries nearly the entire film herself. References like the characters’ names (two flowers, Lily and Iris; or Blum as in Blumhouse?) hint at more layers to the story than are ever quite realized.
A long, cryptic opening voiceover sets viewers up for a mystery and a ghost story, and the tale raises some beguiling questions. The film gets off to an almost painfully slow start, with long, sustained shots (like a more cinematic Paranormal Activity), but the tension and suspense build steadily, reaching edge-of-your-seat levels. The glimpses at Polly’s tale are tantalizing, and there’s unquestionable dread waiting for the promised fate to arrive.
And arrive it does. But not with any answers. The action just… stops, leaving more questions about what’s really going on in that lonely house, and the denouement wraps up nothing for the characters or the viewer. Which leaves this suspenseful, haunting, and atmospheric movie feeling sadly empty and unsatisfying. If the payoff had been as strong as the mood and Wilson’s unsettling performance, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House would have been a definite must-watch for ghost story fans. As it is, the drum-taut tension merely evaporates, without any sort of resolution to make the experience of sitting through the slow parts worthwhile. An attempt at metaphor and profound observations about the nature of ghosts and hauntings likewise falls flat—unless that was the point.
Genre movie fans may want to keep an eye out for a brief appearance by Bob Balaban (Gosford Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
With high marks for tension, art design, atmosphere, and acting, but a failing grade for story, pacing, and resolution, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is worth popping on in the background on a chilly night when you’re by yourself to heighten the creepy mood, but don’t give up an evening to stayed glued to it waiting for any answers.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is streaming now on Netflix.