I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House review – Ruth Wilson can't save underwritten horror

Osgood Perkins layers on the dread in his haunted house thriller. But as it becomes clear that there’s no worthwhile story, the scares dissipate fast

The director Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins) locks in the oppressively artful tone of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House in its opening scene. He starts his slow-burn horror so steeped in darkness, it’s hard to make out what looks like a Victorian woman. A timid female voice relays why it’s no fun being a ghost. “For those who have stayed, their prison is their never seeing,” she says. “And left all alone, this is how they rot.”

When it’s revealed that the voice belongs to Lily (Ruth Wilson), the young nurse at the centre at the tale, her fate is immediately sealed. “Three days ago I turned 28 years old,” she says in voiceover, as she’s seen entering the haunted house that is going to be her home for a year. “I will never be 29 years old.”

Straight out of the gate, Perkins announces he’s not out to surprise, instead relying on atmosphere to keep you invested. He and his gifted cinematographer Julie Kirkwood do a bang-up job of capturing every foreboding shadow in the isolated country manor where the entire film is set. Ultimately though, a solid paranormal tale requires a strong backbone, or in the very least a plucky protagonist. That’s where I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House falls woefully short.

After being hired to care for Iris Bloom (Paula Prentiss), a reclusive author well past her prime, Lily is hung out to dry. In an effort to humanise her, Perkins (who also wrote the screenplay) has her cry on the phone while opening up to a friend about a man who left her. But as far as characterisation goes, that’s all Perkins affords his lead. For the rest of film, she simply creeps around the house at a glacial pace, trying to find out why Iris keeps calling her Polly, the name of the doomed heroine in her novel, The Lady in the Walls.

Wilson is a beguiling presence whose large, expressive eyes are a horror director’s dream. But save for a final primal scream, she’s never afforded the chance to cut loose and show off her chops.

It’s commendable that Perkins seems wholly uninterested in the tropes of the genre: there’s only one jump scare, hardly any gore and no final girl. The elusiveness of the narrative, however, grows weary fast. When Polly eventually makes an appearance, Perkins stubbornly keeps the reason behind her undoing murky. There is zero payoff, so why stick with it?

Contributor

Nigel M Smith

The GuardianTramp

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