Friday, October 28, 2016


(US/Canada - 2016)

Written and directed by Osgood Perkins. Cast: Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Erin Boyes, Brad Milne. (Unrated, 89 mins)

A cold, stark, slow-burning mood piece that received accolades at this year's Toronto Film Festival where it was acquired by Netflix, I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE is the first released film by actor-turned writer/director Osgood Perkins (his first film, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, has been tied up in distribution limbo since 2015 and is due to be released in early 2017). The film feels very personal for Perkins, the son of legendary PSYCHO star Anthony Perkins and photographer Berry Berenson, and named after his actor grandfather Osgood Perkins, best known as the doomed mob boss toppled by Paul Muni's title character in the original 1932 version of SCARFACE. It's a story of lingering ghosts, both supernatural and psychological, and it's something that almost certainly carries emotional weight for Perkins after the traumatic loss of both of his parents, his father (to whom the film is dedicated), who died of AIDS in 1992, and his mother, who was on one of the planes flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11 nine years later. This is an uncompromising film that's unquestionably a singular, unique vision by its creator, made with no commercial consideration whatsoever. Unfortunately, that's also its downfall. From a plot perspective, you'll figure out the Shyamalanian twist five minutes in, unless you've never seen a movie before. That may be by design: Perkins doesn't seem particularly interested in telling a story as much as creating a mood and atmosphere. He succeeds for a while, but it makes for a hard sit, with 89 minutes feeling like four hours. This would've made a fine, eerie short film. As it is, it feels like about 15 minutes worth of material stretched out to an hour and a half, and ultimately, the emphasis on mood and the pervasive sense of dread only feels like stylistic smoke and mirrors, absurdly prolonging the obvious direction in which the flimsy narrative is headed at the most laborious pace imaginable.

Ruth Wilson (LUTHER, THE AFFAIR) stars as Lily, a hospice nurse hired by attorney Mr. Waxcap (Bob Balaban) to care for a client, famed horror novelist Iris Blum (the long-retired Paula Prentiss, who hasn't headlined a movie in over 30 years), who's in the latter stages of dementia. Arriving at Blum's isolated, rural Massachusetts home, the quiet, spinsterish Lily narrates the story and sets the dark tone by stating "I am 28 years old. I will never be 29." Early on, she makes a phone call and the phone cord is yanked by an unseen presence. 11 months go by and Lily has little to do but explore the old house as Iris sleeps most of the time, and when she's awake, constantly refers to Lily as "Polly." Lily assumes Polly is a long-absent daughter or loved one, but Waxcap says Iris has no children, and that Polly was the main character in her most famous novel, The Lady in the Walls. It's around this same time that Lily notices mold expanding over a spot on one of the walls as she begins reading the book, noticing strong parallels between the mindset of Polly and her own mental state after nearly a year in total seclusion from the outside world.

Perkins gives up the ghost--no pun intended--early on, with Lily's narration (done in a very exact, literary, and overly affected style by Wilson) stating "A house with a death in it can never be bought or sold...it can only be borrowed from the ghosts that have stayed behind," and "It's a terrible thing to look at oneself, and all the while see nothing." The voiceover is so omnipresent and the shots so photograph-still that PRETTY THING often feels like an audio book with visual accompaniment. The minimalist score (by Perkins' younger brother Elvis) and sound design showcase subtle rumblings and barely audible whispers that may or may not exist in Lily's head, and by the time Iris, in a moment of clarity, tells Lily "See yourself as others see you...even the prettiest things rot," the endgame is pretty apparent. Lily herself seems like an odd misfit lost in time, prone to exclamations like "Heavens to Betsy, no!" and chirpily talking to inanimate objects, like "There you are!" when she finds an old TV, and "Well! There's no need to be rude!" when it doesn't work. There's no middle ground with I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE. The absolute slowest of the post-Ti West slow-burn horror films, people will either connect with its emphasis on establishing a distant chilliness with little to nothing happening or they'll quickly grow bored with its predictable story and exhausted with Lily's stilted, forced narration. I'm in the latter group, and while I appreciate what Perkins was doing and it's great to see Prentiss again after all these years (she and husband Richard Benjamin are longtime friends of the Perkins family), the approach is ultimately off-putting and the effect deadening after about 25 minutes.

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