Written by Maryana L. Vestic

The title alone tells you everything needed to prepare for Oz Perkins’ literary horror film that premiered on Netflix in late October. The wording makes it abundantly clear that we are not in for a slasher movie or gore fest. The second film directed by Perkins – son to Anthony and an actor in his own right – is more than simply a “slow burn.” There are only three main characters: Lily, the 28-year-old nurse whom we are told in the first five minutes “will never be 29,” Iris, the frail old writer who requires Lily’s in-home hospice care (played by Paula Prentiss in an act of genius casting; she is forever remembered from the original Stepford Wives uttering her famous line “I thought we were friends”), and Polly, the central ghost that “lives” in the walls of the house (played by Lucy Boynton). Three women, Bob Balaban (as the awkward Mr. Waxcap), and the house. The film is groundbreaking in this way alone.

The film begins with a monologue – more of a literary prologue – straight out of a moody memoir, delivered by Lily (played by the quietly charismatic Ruth Wilson and her quivering yet bold voice). We are slowly and methodically told that the paranormal world in this house is quite different than in other horror stories. We see Polly, the ghost, in mildly soft focus, frozen yet wavering in blackness like a reflection of water, her face particularly seeping like a stain across black paper. So too does Polly’s identity seep across the film. Narrator Lily explains that ghosts are not only trapped in a house where a death has occurred, but are trapped there by their own minds. It is not just their bodies that rot in the walls as Polly’s does, but it is the ghosts’ memories of themselves and their lives that rots with them. Perkins makes the viewer dig deeper here – the ghosts’ minds convince them that they are not “free to go.” The clean, bright white and mustard tones of the very not horrific house forces us to recognize before the plot even begins that we are easily the rotting ghosts of our own lives – our homes, our families, our relationships, our pasts. This is how we must watch this film: as active participants in the haunting.

Meanwhile, Nurse Lily isn’t so confident in her language or action. She is a self-professed scaredy cat, afraid to even pick up one of Iris’ horror novels, even though she eventually begins reading “The Lady in the Walls,” which deals expressly in Polly’s story. Polly whispered her story to a young Iris, who is seen at various times typing away at her typewriter with a cigarette in her mouth.

Lily is afraid of the first night in the new home and seems just as uneasy as 11 months go by. Equal parts neuroses and fright, Lily’s imagination slowly builds until she is able to perceive Polly’s presence. The simplicity of the “payoff” doesn’t feel very paid off, but arrives after a masterful buildup that brilliantly presents negative/black space, also aided by Elvis Perkins’s film score which bleeds into us just the same as the ghost bleeds into Lily’s eye line.

The film slowly peels away the layers between the real spaces that we – like Lily – believe we perceive around us in our homes– our worlds – and the imaginative spaces in which we wrestle with ourselves: dreams, memories, nightmares, loss, trauma, breakdown, and epiphany. Rarely has any horror film of yesteryear or now been able to traverse these worlds as seamlessly, with (almost unbearable) tension, and ultimately with such presence of mind.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is ultimately a lesson in memoir and life story (or in this case, death story). It isn’t easy to remember the end of certain stories, especially when it is painful and shocking as much of our individual and communal experiences are, but we must. Like Lily, we must face the ghost and take our part in the long line of life’s decay, the utmost in horror experiences and the most unsettling of lessons in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. At the end of the day, all us pretty things are rotting in a most slow and subtle way, aren’t we?

Maryana Lucia Vestic has spent her life traveling between the worlds of writing, mythology, history and filmmaking. After graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and getting her Master of Philosophy in Irish Theatre Studies from Trinity College Dublin, she spent nearly 20 years working in film, television, publishing, the arts and entertainment. All along the way, she has had pieces published online and in print in Harper’s Market, Beyond Race, and more recently, The Inquisitive Eater. She is currently getting her MFA in creative writing (nonfiction) at The New School and writes personal essays, memoir, and criticism often wrapped up in her Croatian-American experience, food, film, place, history, and things of a cosmic nature that might only exist in her head.

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