I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is a Beautiful Horror Experiment
A beautiful experiment in horror filmmaking.
When Osgood Perkins’ first feature The Blackcoat’s Daughter (then titled February) premiered at last year’s film festival, the consensus was polarizing. Many did not know what two make of Perkins’ art-house horror film, which refused to abide by the genre conventions established by filmmakers such as Ti West and Adam Wingard. Instead, Perkins’ film was one more meditative, a film filled with subtext and traces of the director’s own history. His latest film is I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Though it is even more challenging than its predecessor, Perkin’s latest film is a captivating and daring experiment in horror.
In the opening narration, Ruth Wilson’s Lily declares herself the pretty thing. The house in question belongs to decaying horror novelist Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss of The Stepford Wives). Lily, a hospice nurse, has been hired by the mysterious head of Blum’s estate (Bob Balaban) to take care of the mostly silent, aging writer. Thus, with Iris mostly in bed, Lily solely inhabits most of the film’s short running time. A self-proclaimed scaredy-cat, Lily passes by a bookcase of Blum’s novels each day, but refuses to pick one up. Eventually, with a fuzzy television signal and a temperamental phone cable, Lily succumbs, forcing herself to turn the pages of Blum’s most celebrated novel The Lady in the Walls. As Lily continues to read, and Blum begins to call out for her novel’s protagonist Polly, the pages come to life before Lily’s eyes. For Lily, it seems that the famously conclusion-less novel’s ending will finally be revealed.
It is Perkin’s seemingly autobiographical approach to his material that makes his films so compelling. There’s no denying that Perkins has had a strange upbringing, and it is this upbringing that seems to shine through his films. His father was Anthony Perkins, star of horror classic Psycho. His mother, a model, was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Perkins lost both his parents before turning thirty. Much like the celebrated Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, the spirits of Perkins’ parents seem to influence his filmmaking. The connection in The Blackcoat’s Daughter is more easily accessible. That film opened with a young girl whose parents never appeared to pick her up from her boarding school. In the case of I Am the Pretty Thing, the connection is less accessible. Perkin’s dedicated to film to his father as “A.P.” and also shows Lily watching one of his father’s films on television. Perhaps Perkin’s is our Lily, trapped in the shadows left behind by his horror icon father.
Just as I Am the Pretty Thing’s meanings are more thickly veiled than those of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, this film also finds Perkins furthering his experimentation with the medium. The plot of the film is rather thin, often remaining secondary to the tone and the visuals. Rather than utilizing the cheap jump scare to get a reaction from his audience, Perkin’s instead employs an acute sense a dread draped over the entire film. This continues to build throughout, finally reaching crescendo in a moment that is equally puzzling as it is terrifying. To boot, this said moment features a screeching orchestral cue, one that is particularly reminiscent of the score played during Marion Crane’s murder in Psycho.
The languid pacing of I Am the Pretty Thing will surely be unwelcome by anyone expecting a straightforward horror film. The film is most rewarding when approached as an experiment of sorts. Perkins is tapping into something unexplored in the genre, the result of which is a haunting meditation on the impact left by the dead. It is a confident, assured piece of filmmaking that is truly shocking. It may not be what many are accustomed to, but I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is surely the greatest horror film I’ve seen all year. It is an unshakeable horror experience that hopefully signifies the beginning of a very long career for Osgood Perkins.