Netflix Originals film output is almost as strong as its excellent TV output these days. From the award-winning Idris Elba helmed ‘Beasts of No Nation’ to the funny and touching ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’, Netflix films are becoming a force to be reckoned with (if only they would drop their obsession with Adam Sandler).
Their Halloween offering to the viewers, ‘I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’, thankfully keeps up this trend of high-quality entertainment. Written and directed by Osgood Perkins (son of actor Anthony, who gets a sly nod during the film), ‘IATPTTLITH’ (as no-one will call it) tells the tale of a young nurse, Lily (Ruth Wilson), who finds herself caring for an elderly horror writer, Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). The two women remain largely alone in Blum’s isolated New England home, with no television and just the one telephone connecting them to the outside world. So far, so Stephen King. However within the opening monologue Lily reveals that the house has seen previous deaths and that she won’t live to see her next birthday, which leaves us in a constant state of tension as we wonder what is going to happen to Lily over the next 90 minutes.
The film itself is one giant, elegant exercise in building tension. The narrative itself could be condensed to 2 sides of A4 paper, and very little happens. There is only one jump-scare, no gore and no terrifying demons. The end result however is a masterful and poetic exercise in making your skin crawl. Lingering shots of dark doorways become way more frightening than any CGI monster, and I found myself going to check my doors were all locked after the film finished. This is not a horror film for fans of the standard horror tropes, as it is much more measured in its scares.
It is hard to pin down when the film is set, although the lack of mobile phones, the nods to The Grateful Dead, and mentions of Blum’s books being a hit in the 60’s, all hint that this is possibly set in the early 80s. This sense of timelessness seems perfect, as the film itself could be either an Edgar Allan Poe poem, John Carpenter film, or the more avant garde scares of Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’. Osgood Perkins clearly knows horror inside out, and it shows.
The success or failure of the film hinges entirely on the quality of the performance of our protagonist, who occupies about 90% of the screen time. Ruth Wilson puts in an amazing performance as scaredy-cat Lily, managing to balance being shy and naive, whilst giving some seriously creepy vibes in her voiceover. Paula Prentiss too is great in the few scenes she has, veering from illness-induced absence, to absolute and terrifying lucidity.
The soundtrack, or lack thereof, adds to the insidious scares, with the creaks and bangs of the old house adding to the sense that there is a malign presence within.
The ending was a little lacking, and seemed to be a bit of compromise after such an audacious exercise in stringing out tension, but overall ‘IATPTTLITH’ left me feeling unsettled and hiding under my covers, which surely is what good horror should do.