I’m still disappointed that I missed out on Osgood Perkins’ directorial debut February (now retitled The Blackcoat’s Daughter) at last year’s TIFF. Bloody Disgusting raved about the Emma Roberts film), naming it one of the best films of the year, so I knew that this year I had to check out Perkins’ sophomore effort, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (hereafter I Am the Pretty Thing…).
The new film is a slow-burn haunted house story that’s a little reminiscent of The Others. Unlike other recent ghost films, Perkins eschews CGI completely, opting to use lingering off-centered static shots, silence and an unsettling soundtrack to create a moody, atmospheric tone. To suggest that the film is languid is an understatement; Perkins is less interested in a conventional narrative than he is in enveloping the audience in the timeless world filled with mystery novels, endless routine and constant ethereal banging on the walls.
Ruth Wilson (familiar to American audiences from The Affair) is the centerpiece of I Am the Pretty Thing… and the film lives and dies with her performance. As Lily, Wilson is in nearly every scene and the character provides not only the film’s voice over, she frequently dictates our point of view. Lily is an unusual character: she is almost child-like, talking to flowers and TV sets, but she is professional enough to be entrusted the role of hospice nurse for ailing mystery novelist Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). The fact that the film is set at an indeterminate time (costuming and technology hint that it is the 1980s) is entirely deliberate.
In a boldly confident move, Perkins’ script lays out the entire film in Lily’s opening voice over and the opening images. As Lily intones about how houses that have had deaths in them can only be lent out by their ghosts, the opening images feature a dimly lit ethereal figure with a blurred visage and a slow pan over beds occupied by children as if glimpsed through a viewfinder. When we finally lay eyes on Lily as she enters Blum’s house for the first time, she confirms in voice over while seemingly breaking the fourth wall that she is the “pretty one” and that she will not live to see her next birthday. These disembodied images and spoilery proclamations both serve to introduce the film’s central mystery while simultaneously confirming that the destination is less important than the journey.
Thus begins a film that trades on its sound design (constant rainfall, dripping taps, the aforementioned banging) as well as its lingering, off-center shots to build tension. There are actually very few scares, but there is near constant tension. Perkins maximizes the fear potential in everyday occurrences so that the slow creep of mold on the wall and the flickering static on the TV become objects of unease. Throughout there is a constant suggestion that Lily is a stand-in or double for Polly (Lucy Boynton) the protagonist of Blum’s most famous novel. In addition to Blum’s refusal to call her anything but Polly, there are frequent shots of Lily’s face fractured in two in mirrors and TV screens, as though she is being split (in addition to the expected jump scare when Polly is briefly glimpsed over Lily’s shoulder in a TV screen).
This, as well as the film’s frequent use of slow fades to black to mark the transition of time and the casual reveal that much of Lily’s voice over dialogue is actually Polly’s from the novel, is a deliberate attempt to displace the film in time. The repetitive nature of images and dialogue, including the opening and closing scenes, infers that the events of the film are a cycle, a closed loop that ensnares its houseguests and traps them in perpetuity.
Despite a final climax that is a bit underwhelming, the preceding hour and a half establishes I Am the Pretty Thing… as a brazen, confident sophomore effort from Osgood Perkins. The film isn’t for everyone, but for those who can appreciate a slow-burn ghost story that relies heavily on tone and atmosphere rather than CGI and jump scares, this is one to seek out.