Artful thriller 'I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House' intrigues rather than scares
November 2, 2016
Atmospheric and palpably tense, this newly released Netflix original is a slow build toward a beautifully written but somewhat confusing supernatural thriller.
The story follows a hospice nurse named Lily as she is arriving at the home of the elderly horror novelist Iris Blum. From this and the promotional images Netflix displays for the movie, we can surmise (correctly nonetheless) that this is going to be a haunted house story.
We are pulled in right away with an opening narration over a very creepy yet extremely artful scene. The distorted narration explains that a house with a death in it can never be bought, only borrowed from the ghosts that live there. In a moment, we find out that the narrator is Lily, and that she inevitably dies in the story.
From there, you will quickly notice that this will be a slow movie, which can lend itself to both positives and negatives. A film that doesn’t show its cards straight away is usually one that can tease us enough to stay engaged until we’re hooked, which this one does. However, it leads us to a final act that, while effective in giving us a scare or two, ends up being confusing and leaves me puzzled as to exactly what happened. I did however read a plot synopsis online and the explanation is quite simple, so being confused may have been my own fault.
The film does a fantastic job building a claustrophobic atmosphere with its setting of a single house in rural Massachusetts. It also builds tension with help from its music and selective moments of silence. Quite often the movie uses very little, if any, sound and does so for the effect of suspense.
One thing to remember is that this is not a horror movie per se. This is more of a supernatural thriller or a haunted house/ghost story. Throughout the first half I was tense, watching every camera movement, listening to every music cue, waiting for the inevitable thing lurking in the dark to jump out.
But by the second half I had realized that was not what this movie was going to be. By then I had learned the formula of what the camera was panning to and what the musical cues meant. This is a film that wants to scare you with its story, not necessarily its visuals. The story ends up being really interesting, tying characters and events together and revealing story beats at correct moments but maybe leaving a little too much up to interpretation.
Characters in the movie are very few. In fact, you can count all of the main characters on one hand, with only three of those having dialogue. Acting-wise, I thought all performances were great. Ruth Wilson as Lily, the main character, gives a performance that reflects her character’s nagging fear of just about everything. This trait would have been annoying but ends up grounding the character very well and makes her more relatable. It also lends credence to how she meets her fate in the end.
The directing in this film is very simple, which adds a very minimalist quality to the film. The plot is mostly explained by narration done by Lily looking back on the events of the film. This, combined with the simple but effective camera work, gives this a very welcome literary quality. By this I mean the plot isn’t spelled out easily right away. Instead, it is like an onion, letting us slowly peel away layers until we are left with the core of the story.
As someone who really loves a good ghost story and likes reading horror novels, this movie struck the right chord with me. It did everything a great book would do but in movie form.
I can’t say this is for everyone. In fact, I would have a hard time recommending this to anyone I know. It is short, at only an hour and a half, but feels much longer due to its slow and steady pace.
For those who really love a ghost story or want to see a fantastic example of budget filmmaking, then this is a great film for you. While a great literary and artful piece of film, “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” will not satisfy those looking for a scare this Halloween season.