Oz Perkins asks for what too few modern horror filmmakers do: patience. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is, at times, as laborious as its title implies, filled with long, sustained silences and ponderous pontifications with opaque implications. What props the film up is Perkins’ masterful command of atmosphere. As in his previous feature The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a festival favorite from last year that still hasn’t seen a wide release, I Am the Pretty Thing thrives on texture and mood, even as it falters in terms of storytelling.
And story is in short supply. What we have is a house, stark, simple, and trapped in a bygone era, and a hospice nurse, Lily (Ruth Wilson), who’s been sent to care for an elderly horror author, Iris (Paula Prentiss), during her last days. It isn’t long before Lucy is unsettled; the house seems to be rotting from the inside, Iris will only call her Polly, and a cursory glance through Iris’ literary output raises innumerable goosebumps. As Lily inches closer to the “Polly” Iris speaks of, she further awakens the spirits that call the house their home.
The tropes are there; these are aspects of countless ghost stories. But Perkins isn’t interested in adhering to them, nor in subverting them. What he wants to capture is a feeling, an anxious dread. As in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Perkins is drawn to the spectre that’s just out of sight, the shape in the darkness that we can’t quite make out. Fading, translucent figures manifest through blurred eyesight, their faces distorted and actions indecipherable. And then there’s the doorways. Nobody, except perhaps David Lynch, is as drawn to the darkness that lies beyond an empty doorway more than Perkins.
Lynch is a clear influence, though Perkins’ films aren’t nearly so peripatetic. Where Lynch leavens his darkness with offbeat humor, Perkins doubles down on it. Think of the slow glides through Fred Madison’s apartment in Lost Highway, or Mulholland Drive’s long, awful walk to the dumpster — that’s Perkins’ safe space.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, his gaze is tremendously effective. So is the pervasive score, which oscillates between rhythmic drones, rumbling ambiance, and the occasional string sting. Couple it with the uncanny dialogue and unstuck-in-time aesthetic, and it’s easy to feel as if you’re locked in an alternate dimension. Nobody speaks like a real person here; Perkins’ dialogue is purposely stilted and antiquated (who has ever called themselves a “silly billy”?). It’s delivered nimbly by the game cast, too, especially Bob Balaban as the aloof caretaker.
Less affecting, however, are the reams of voiceover that underscore Perkins’ interludes. There’s beauty there (“It is a terrible thing to look at one’s self and to all the while see nothing”), but much of it is overwrought and slippery. The same can be said for the resolution of the film’s central mystery, which doesn’t resolve so much as fold in on itself.
Still, the storytelling is handled much better here than in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which veered into cliche in an attempt to unpack its narrative. I Am the Pretty Thing avoids that by embracing obfuscation. What’s clear in Perkins’ second feature is that he’s clearly become aware that his talents as a visual storyteller outweigh his skill with narrative. He’s leaning into that, and while it might make for a more “difficult” film, it’s ultimately a more satisfying one. This isn’t a film to follow; it’s a film to get lost in.