Director: Osgood Perkins
Writer: Osgood Perkins
Producer: Rob Paris, Robert Menzies
Stars: Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Paula Prentiss, Erin Boyes, Brad Milne, Daniel Chichagov
A live-in nurse caring for an elderly novelist is unsettled by a haunting presence in the author’s isolated house.
In only two outings as director, first with his debut “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (review here) and then doubling down on follow-up film “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” Osgood Perkins has fully cemented the sound of his voice in genre cinema. His distinctive style cares nothing for conventionally commercial channels, insistent instead on an experimental path of personal introspection exclusively suited for erudite appeal. Interpretive aesthetics additionally ensure instant divisiveness over the subjective value of Perkins’ projects as art and as entertainment, a notion acutely engraved in the hypnotic ambiguity of “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House.”
Recently-jilted hospice nurse Lily takes her attraction to isolation to another level when she accepts a long-term job as live-in caretaker to noted novelist Iris Blum. Elderly Iris resides in an old house at the end of a lonely road, surrounded within and without by physical as well as psychological solitude. Settling into these shadows for several months is the remedy Lily requires to reframe her mind, body, and soul.
Formerly an Agatha Christie-like author of popular pulp perched between Crichton and King at airport bookstores, Iris repeatedly refers to Lily as ‘Polly,’ an idiosyncrasy initially attributed to Iris’ deteriorating dementia. When Lily learns Polly is the heroine of Iris’ book “The Lady in the Walls,” Lily finally takes her first step into Iris’ fiction, having previously avoided the woman’s work for fear of being frightened by its content. Once inside the rabbit hole, Lily discovers Polly may be more than an invention of Iris’ imagination. Something seemingly supernatural walks within the house’s walls. Whatever it is, an ethereal tether ties Lily’s fact to Polly’s fiction as the arcs of both women simultaneously intertwine and unravel in unusual fashion.
“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” is gothic literature in film form, replete with poetic prose narrated by Ruth Wilson’s velvety voice. The movie’s strength is in setting, not so much storytelling, building a minimalist mood out of staging, suggestion, subtlety, and speed, with that last one being of the deliberately slow and creeping variety.
Those entranced by the dreamlike quality of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” can expect to similarly revel in this film’s lusty exploration of unsettled atmosphere. Oz Perkins writes Lily’s interior monologues with a rhythm in step to the echo of brother Elvis Perkins’ transfixing score, kept intentionally unbalanced by a piano just slightly off key. Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood’s patient camera captures hollow hallways with choking gloom while the cast strides through dazed characterizations, as though everyone is trapped in a sleepwalking body. The complete concert plays together into a near-constant crescendo of elegant eeriness. It’s a gorgeous gorge on theatrical poeticism, though that definitely doesn’t translate into the most visually arresting narrative.
“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” is not a movie to watch on your computer, as the devil in dull details will regularly tempt you to drift into a browser or onto social media, anxious to click on anything of more immediately satiating interest. Technically accomplished across each and every board, the movie is nonetheless a burdensome trudge through a plot of shallow literal depth.
Perkins’ simple story of one haunted woman asks your imagination to divine its symbolism without offering compelling incentive to maintain proactive engagement. Perhaps Perkins has hidden messages in the subtext of parallel personalities and backwards bodies. Perhaps you’ll answer the challenge to assign your own meaning in accordance with those wishes. Perhaps you’ll instead not feel bothered to shoulder the burden that the script drops to assign its own importance.
“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” confirms Oz Perkins’ calling card as an auteur of artistic atmosphere, stylized for theater but realized on a screen. Emphasis on tuning performances and first-person words into tone works terrifically, yet there is a reason why such structure better serves a stage or a page than it does a motion picture. Noncommittal meaning cheats fiction without a firm foundation. Delight in the dark of the movie’s dread if it suits you. But do not be taken aback if your takeaway satisfaction feels as eerily empty as the house in which it is set.
Review Score: 55