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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, Canadian Cinema, NORTH AMERICAN CINEMA

‘I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’ (2016)… and This is a Review of Another Slow Horror Movie

Directed by: Osgood Perkins || Produced by: Rob Paris, Robert Menzies

Screenplay by: Osgood Perkins || Starring: Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Paula Prentiss

Music by: Elvis Perkins || Cinematography: Julie Kirkwood || Edited by: Brian Ufberg || Country: Canada, United States || Language: English

Running Time: 87 minutes

I’ve reviewed or commented upon multiple science-fiction (e.g. Under the Skin [2013], Monsters [2010], Ex Machina [2015]) and horror pictures (see Ti West’s filmography), as well as several dramas (e.g. The Lobster [2015], The Rover [2014]) whose premises did not warrant feature-film status (i.e. 90-120+ minute running times). While any filmmaker can take a lackluster narrative formula and elevate it with emotional heft or stylized camerawork, the directors of those aforementioned pictures did not. Movies like The Lunchbox (2013) or Chopper [2000] struggle not only with a lack of definitive audiovisual style, but also limited, hollow diegeses and unimaginative screenplays such that they function more like 15 minute short films ballooned (re: forced) to feature-length.

Ruth Wilson (background left) seemingly moves backward in time to view a younger version of her ward, Erin Boyes (foreground right).

Given the inherent cinematic appeal of horror filmmaking and their productions’ relative affordability compared to other genres (e.g. action, fantasy, science-fiction, etc.), I’ve noticed an overabundance of modest, unambitious spooky movies whose 90-minute runtimes feel like eternity thanks to this dynamic. Their directors are often inexperienced, perhaps attempting their first feature, and therefore work within a limited budget. While budgetary constraints may foster creativity in certain instances (e.g. The Raid [2011], Aliens [1986]), in others, a lack of funds may constrict a filmic idea’s realization and/or encourage filmmakers to bloat their movies with filler.

Another unfortunate example of this phenomenon is Osgood Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (henceforth, Pretty Thing). Perkins, son of prolific Psycho (1960) actor and part-time director, Anthony Perkins, made a sort of “retroactive splash” with his directorial feature debut in The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), which received a wide release only after the lesser Pretty Thing. Whereas his technical rookie film is patient yet delivers enough scares, gore, and an inventive, nonlinear storyline to satisfy even horror skeptics, Pretty Thing is almost a parody of the horror enthusiast’s “slow-burn, atmospheric” scary movie. The movie’s narrative content is as sparse as its title is verbose: A hospice nurse (Ruth Wilson) cares for an elderly author of a series of successful horror novels (Paula Prentiss) and discovers the latter’s house may be haunted.

In all honesty, that’s it. A few flashbacks here and there elaborate the possible origins of the ghost haunting Prentiss’ estate, while Wilson tries reading a few pages from Prentiss’ novels despite her apprehension toward the genre. There’s nothing in this story that couldn’t be replicated — not summarized, not abbreviated, but replicated — in a five-minute campfire story at night. Major reasons for this are the paper-thin characterizations of Wilson and Prentiss, the former of whom isn’t given much to work with even by the standards of horror movie archetypes, and the latter of whom is more less a nonexistent character. Wilson does her best to portray a timid, mousey healthcare worker that doesn’t like living alone in a creepy house, but she’s little more than a vessel for a handful of jump-scares and a decrepit mood.

Another big reason for Pretty Thing’s empty cinematic style is the lack of energy in Perkin’s direction and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood’s camerawork. Kirkwood often frames her medium and close-up shots such that characters’ upper bodies are truncated in the lower corner of the frame, which feels awkward and nonsensical rather than spooky. For another thing, Perkins utilizes way too many slow, dare I saw glacial 180-360 degree pans that yield little narrative payoff. The climactic panoramic shot works well enough, but all the others are a waste of time and don’t compare well to Alfonso Cuarón’s distinctive use of the same technique years later in Roma (2018). Stationary camera pans work great for establishing mood and informing the daily routines of characters in an ensemble drama, but I argue Perkins’ attempt to build suspense with them in Pretty Thing is an abject failure.

What does work in this movie besides the occasional creepy visual? I would further argue very little, but Pretty Thing has a couple notable strengths: Kirkwood’s lighting schemes are wonderful and her emphasis of the principle haunted mansion’s architecture is memorable. To say that the house, the primary setting of the film, has more characterization than any of the human figures in this story would be an understatement; the handful of brief flashbacks give greater narrative weight to it than Wilson’s forgettable monologues.

Another minor but notable strength of Pretty Thing is Elvis Perkins’ (Osgood’s brother) nonmelodic soundtrack, which doesn’t differ from most forgettable background music in movies nowadays in style, but rather its use. Osgood Perkins’ placement of his brother’s soundtrack aides his visuals where his characters and self-important camera pans don’t, and prevent his story’s pace from feeling truly punishing.

In one of the film’s multiple surrealist sequences, Paula Prentiss (left) listens to the words of Lucy Boynton (right), who haunts the former’s estate.

With all that said, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House remains one of the worst paced horror movies I’ve seen in years, including the works of Ti West, whom I consider one of the most overrated auteurs in contemporary cinema. Given the strength of his debut, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, as well as the positive feedback for his latest feature, Gretel and Hansel (2020), I don’t believe Osgood Perkins to be another Ti West and assume Pretty Thing to be a career misstep absent further evidence. I would never recommend Pretty Thing to anyone save for the most snobbish of horror fans, however, as its sluggish pace, uninspired story, and one-dimensional characters waste its viewers’ time for almost 90 minutes on an “atmosphere” that doesn’t deliver the scares it needs to succeed. There are horror movies that need to be more patient, sure, but then there are horror movies who think narrative patience unto itself is a reward.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Neither scary nor emotional, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House lives up to the arrogance of its wordy title; writer-director Osgood Perkins expands his modest short film premise to almost an hour and a half for no reason other than to depict inexplicable camerawork and tedious, conceited voiceovers. 

However… Perkins takes advantage of director of photography Julie Kirkwood and composer Elvis Perkins’ personification of a neat haunted house.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED

? I am the bored writer who tires of describing this impotent short film masquerading as a feature-length movie.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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