Directed by Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony, aka Norman Bates), I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House has the potential to be an excellent ghost story, so focused is the film on moody, spectral atmospherics, rather than ghoulish images or things that go bump in the night. I admire its effort, but I do not find the execution to be all that effective, its attempts at establishing mood all huff to little avail.
The cinematography is beautiful, creeping through the creaky old house in which the film is set like a solitary breath, the screen expansive in negative space. All of this if for naught, because nothing formulates in this negative space. The performances float through the screen, inhabiting that in-between space between life and death that is such an important part of ghost stories, but they lack any grounding to have an impact. The ever-present voiceover, drenched in flowery imagery and eloquence, is emptily dense, and not nearly as poetic as it thinks it is. A shame, because these elements in and of themselves have the potential to make a worthy film.
I Am the Pretty Thing… stars Ruth Wilson (an underrated sleeping star for a while) as Lily, a nurse hired to take care of aging writer Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). Iris only ever refers to Lily as Polly; confused, Lily does some research and finds that Polly is the main character of one of her most acclaimed books, The Woman in the Walls. It transpires that Polly (as played by Lucy Boynton) was murdered in the house long ago, and has remained as a ghost ever since, stuck in an infinite loop.
Matched to the aforementioned aesthetic elements of the film, Perkins eventually finds himself in a muddle film-wise. The film eventually begins to distort its temporal and physical space in a manner recalling David Lynch, dovetailing past and present together, but because the collective atmosphere is nowhere near as effective, there’s no payoff for all the film’s ethereal mood. It’s not that a physical, clear-cut payoff is required, but that some kind of emotional or metaphorical thrust needs to occur for events to work, which never happens. All of the pretty set dressing in aid of mood-building eventually builds to no mood other than one long sustained note of murk.
Compare this to Robert Eggers’ masterful The Witch, which achieves much of what this film fails to. The Witch builds detail into its screen on every level of its design, from the costuming to the music to the performances, such that the mood becomes all-encompassing and stifling. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House lacks the same exquisite level of detail; therefore it lacks the same atmosphere. It’s admirable in what it’s trying to do, but it’s ultimately an admirable failure.