Canada/United States, 2016. Directed by Oz Perkins. Starring Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Paula Prentiss. 87 minutes. ★★★
If you’re here, reading this, I reckon you’ve probably heard of Shirley Jackson. If you haven’t, long story short: writer from the 1940s and ’50s, chiefly of contemporary gothic stories and novels. In 1959 she published The Haunting of Hill House, which established the modern-day version of the Bad Place trope: it might not necessarily be haunted, not per se, but it definitely gets into your head and twists your thoughts around until you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Stephen King dedicated his novel Firestarter to her memory, observing that she “never needed to raise her voice.” Shirley Jackson didn’t do jump-scares. What she did was get under your skin, build a nest, and lay eggs.
I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (whose title itself suggests another Jackson work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle) has the Hill House-iest haunted house storyline since, if not the actual Hill House, at least since The Shining. 28-year-old hospice nurse Lily arrives at the house at the end of Teacup Road to care for the aging and senile Iris Blum. Iris, once a successful horror writer, seems to think that Lily is actually Polly, the subject of her novel The Lady in the Walls. Or maybe it’s not really a novel. The house at the end of Teacup Road hides many secrets, the most important of which is who Polly really is.
As I watched Pretty Thing, I couldn’t go five minutes without thinking about Steve King’s dedication. Writer/director Osgood “Oz” Perkins paces the film slowly and deliberately, laying on the atmosphere with a trowel. He deploys very few shocks of any kind, and no jump-scares. He complements the proceedings with Julie Kirkwood’s lyrical cinematography and an unsettling ambient score provided by his brother Elvis. Skin, nest, eggs. If Jackson never raised her voice, Perkins spends the film whispering.
…or maybe it’s actually mumbling. I’m not going to lie to you, I think most people are going to hate it. I said before that Perkins paces the film slow; it might be more accurate to say that what little plot there is could fit in a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone—the ’60s version—with little to no abridgment. Ruth Wilson, playing Lily, spends much of the film slowly wandering from room to room, occasionally pausing to deliver a poetic soliloquy: “It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched, even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw…” Melodramatic, yes, but Wilson makes it work. Meanwhile, it takes Lucy Boynton (as Polly) multiple flashbacks just to complete the action of turning her head, and Paula Prentiss (Iris Blum) works on perfecting her vacant stare. I’d say she nails it.
Now, I will gleefully admit I love stuff like this: I get everything I like about Kubrick and Tarkovsky (lovely wide shots, slow pacing, music that makes my stomach churn) in just half the time. It’s a win-win! Other viewers, who prefer movies in which things actually happen are likely to reach the end credits wondering what all the fuss is about. That is, if they don’t suddenly discover they fell asleep halfway through the second act.
And that’s fine: I can’t blame anyone for being bored by this movie; it’s about slow people doing slow things very slowly, until they stop doing them. But I did find it pretty and poetic, almost like watching a morbid, gothic dance. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House isn’t going to be something I want to watch every day, but I’m glad it exists.