Jeezy peasy, this movie. If you were cruising for a Halloweenie movie-fix this Halloween weekend, you might have rested on this brand new Netflix original. I was tempted to immediately start typing after the movie finished, but I made myself stop and soup with it for a night so as not to scorch digital paper with my anger (and you, poor reader, don’t deserve that). I actually considered not writing this one up, but I’m going to. Here’s why: there is a lot of bad horror out there, and a lot of bad writing. When horror does something right, it’s crucial for horror junkies to celebrate it. So, I’m going to celebrate what I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House [2016, directed by Oz Perkins] or IATPTTLITH, does right, and also talk about what it does wrong.
First things first: stupid title. I love an unconventional title. But this is a bad title.
To break down the way I experienced this movie, I will use an analogy. IATPTTLITH was like starting a fire from scratch:
- Phase 1: You’ve found these beautiful and perfect pieces of wood and kindling, and even the perfect setting for said fire. You construct them into a well-balanced spire, but don’t rush the process – this is a thing to be treasured, to be loved and cherished from beginning to end, because this is creation and it is the birth of all things.
- Phase 2: Right, now that that’s over with, you start smacking and rubbing things together, hoping for friction and smoke and a thrill of danger. And you keep rubbing, keeping a slow pace. And after an hour you realize that absolutely nothing has happened.
- Phase 3: EFF IT. You kick over the spire, hoping that some hidden flames will erupt the whole mess into a glorious mushroom cloud. But because you never got any actual heat going, it’s just a bunch of sticks and moss scattered all over the floor (this part happens super fast).
So yeah. The beginning had me in chills and bouncing, so excited by the quality of the writing and the odd, just-a-beat-off Twilight Zone quality to the dialogue and interactions. And then everything goes so, so wrong.
The opening monologue is a stunning, gripping, tone-setting piece of writing that describes a haunting, or perhaps a loss in poetic terms. The visuals are dim and hard to see, a camera panning through a silent house lit only by what might be a dying flashlight beam. I paused the movie to write some notes and contain myself. One of those notes was, “FFFFFffff!!!!” Oh, how hard we fall.
One of the strengths of IATPTTLITH is the pace. It is a deliberate, slow pace. We are meant to absorb every sparse detail of this old house, every wisp of hair on Ms. Blum’s head, every grain of wood. As the film progresses, the pace never increases but the visuals become more psychological.
The house is very much a character in this film, and for the first Act, it sits in the frame like a menacing actual person. We feel that Lily is in danger by being here even if we don’t know why. How can a house that is painted in whites and pastels be so physically dark? The lighting is brilliant; I have no idea how this wizardry was achieved without making everything that totally-typical de-saturated hue that dulls down practically every low-budget horror flick these days. IATPTTLITH uses shots that are blurry and out of focus. We are meant to not see everything.
Another strength is the odd timeliness: what year is it?? Lily wears an old-school nurse uniform, and the house has only a bunny-eared TV, a tape deck, and a rotary phone. I found it weird that Lily didn’t have a cell phone. I think we’re officially in an age that a character without a cell phone must be either in the past or living in some weird alternate timeline.
I also liked the soundtrack. KIDDING. There is no soundtrack! Or score! Most of the film takes place in silence, which I loved. The sounds that do exist in the background are mega cool: like a figure leaning towards and away from a Theremin.
Even when the plot dilapidated, there were moments of excellent writing. The opening to Ms. Blum’s book, The Lady in the Walls, for example. Polly the ghost speaks for the first time to Lily and us: “I came into this world as I left it” (at which point I said out loud, “dear God, what, screaming?”), Polly then continues, “I am wearing nothing but blood.”
Remember that scene when Lily is flicking through TV channels saying, “No whammies, no whammies, no whammies, STOP.” And after a few rounds of that, Polly’s spirit appears in the reflection? I looked this up. It’s from an 80’s game show called “Press Your Luck,” and is also a phrase for luck, as defined in Urban Dictionary. I love this detail. Like, what is Lily doing here, really? It’s like she’s calling out to Polly but is too terrified to confront the actual spirit.
And before I get to the bad stuff, there’s one more thing I just loved about this film: it is so much like a poem or a play. Some examples:
- Polly is blindfolded, feeling her way through the house. A man steps into frame out of focus, as Polly’s face is swallowed by shadow.
- Polly’s grave is described as being “too shallow to call a grave at all. Better to call it a hiding place.”
- Lily opens the box of Polly’s things with great care. She gingerly rests it on the bed, and uses scissors to gently stab it open, as if she knows Polly has suffered and doesn’t want to cause her further pain.
- Lily chews on stuff absentmindedly. The phone chord, her hoodie string. When it’s clear that we are looking at Lily’s ghost, we see a fuzzy shot of her chewing on her own ectoplasm – and it looks like something from old photos of physical mediums.
- Lily acts as her own Chorus, summing up what’s happened and will happen in between Acts. This does backfire as the plot goes to hell, but it worked at first.
The big bad
I don’t entirely know where to start because so much wrong was done in this movie. Let me be clear: I have high standards for my horror. And that’s because it is capable and I expect nothing less. Now, let’s start with the worst of it:
I was unsure how the title fit into the core message at first. It must be important, right? Otherwise Perkins would never have given this thing the most ludicrous title in the land. And it is fully explained by Ms. Blum. To summarize, she tells Lily there are two types of girls in this world: capable ones (we assume like Ms. Blum herself?), and “pretty things.” This is obviously a very un-feminist message, but if we wanted to view this like a modern-day fairy tale or cautionary tale, what can we grab as modern, capable women? THAT’S RIGHT, OZ, modern women are capable so just shut your mansplaining mouth, cool? Additionally, Ms. Blum thinks that Lily and Polly are the same spirit/person, and Polly was brutally murdered by her new husband, so she’s a victim in this situation. SHE DID NOT ASK TO BE MURDERED BECAUSE SHE’S PRETTY, OH MY GOD. How does Lily respond to Ms. Blum’s assessment, that pretty things rot because they are useless, and the rest of the world sees them as useless, and the only way to prevent rotting is to see themselves as useless? Lily bursts into tears and the scene fades. Oh, and then she dies shortly after. Do you see why I’m not feeling all fluffy slippers and spiked cider about this nonsense?
And while we’re on the subject of pretty things dying. Question: is it even possible for a young, healthy person to die of a fear-induced heart attack?
No, it is not possible.
Let’s talk timeline. The film makes a bizarre choice to skip ahead 11 months in the house almost immediately, like it doesn’t trust us to want to get comfy with Lily in this environment, like it knows that it’s not interesting after all, like it just has to get to the point where it can say, “see? She won’t live to be 29 and it’s been 11 months. So she’s gonna die soon. See?” Yes, movie, we see. And it’s boring. Also weirdly, Lily has not changed in the slightest bit, except that she is slightly more fearful… of something?
Lily the Silly Billy
Lily is not a great character, and I honestly feel that if a less-capable actress had taken this on, IATPTTLITH would have been unbearable. I adore Ruth Wilson, who you may have seen in Jane Eyre or Luther (two of my favorites). Think about how much time is spent on her face and acting. Without that solid base, this would have been a bunch of nothing. Lily is a super weirdo, and weirdly corny, too. Lily is a hospice nurse, which is one of the most brutal and delicate professions. You have to be tough to be a nurse that basically sits with a person until they die, which could take hours, days, months, or longer. These people have to be treated with a delicate hand, even in their worst and scariest moments. So I completely refuse to believe that Lily would be afraid of anything, especially a female ghost who was murdered by the man she loved.
Lily has terrible vision, but refuses to wear her glasses, and even takes off her glasses when she’s trying to see Polly’s spirit, like that will make it clearer.
She names flowers. She calls herself a “silly billy.” She refuses to swear. There’s a sequence early on when Lily opens a drawer and starts to reach her hand in, and her other hand comes flying in to slap it away for snooping. It was a little shocking. This girl is a dork. I’d say most empowered women feel comfortable using the full range of human vocabulary, and aren’t worried about offending someone. Especially when they are by themselves. Again, this was not a good choice for this character. You know who’s a cool dork? Tina Belcher.
So that’s it, the good and the bad. Splitting women into two stereotypes (those that do and those that do not deserve to be murdered) is an unforgivable crime for a writer. I don’t know much about Oz Perkins as a writer. I do know that he played that guy in Legally Blonde. He has a vision for horror and I hope to see greater works in the future. I’ll just bury this one in a shallow grave, where it belongs.
November is a spiritual month! I’ll be focusing on ghost flicks this month. Until next time, a kiddos.