I am the ugly fat thing that sits in his basement and writes about I Am the Pretty Little Thing That Lives in the House, a 2016 haunted house film from director Osgood Perkins. Actually, I have lost a lot of weight, and come to think of it, I am handsome. Perhaps my appearance is debatable. As is the quality of this film. Very much so.
The average rating on IMDB comes to 4.6 out of 10 stars. Oh dear. On rottentomatoes the average rating among critics is 57%. The average among the audience is only 24%. Wow, that is low, man. Reeeeal low. And yet, critics such as Brian Tallerico of rogerebert.com are generous with praise. Released in limited theaters back in 2016, it found its home on Netflix a year later. If I remember correctly, the average rating among Netflix viewers is 3 out of 5 stars.
I’m guessing those who pan it do so for its slow pace, lack of substance, and its arguably pretentious style. Those who like it, perhaps, admire its atmosphere, its creepy tone and the simple visuals of the rooms, stairs, and hallways that create a haunting mood more effectively than a camera obsessed ghost. Though the film does have a ghost, it’s not camera obsessed, but nor is it camera shy. It shows up in the right places, sometimes in the background, sometimes it’s more obvious.
I seem to have devoted more attention to what is good about the film in the previous paragraph than what is not so good. Does this mean I like the movie? Sure I do. But it’s not without its faults.
It’s a simple story, perhaps even a cliché’. A young hospice nurse is to be the live-in caretaker of a retired horror authoress, who is mostly bedridden and suffers from dementia. Iris Blum consistently mistakes Nurse Lily Saylor for “Poly”, who turns out to be the protagonist of Iris’s best-selling novel “The Lady in the Walls.” Meanwhile, strange things happen to Lily during her stay. Some phantom force rips a phone out of her hands. She hallucinates and sees her arms decay. She hears a thump, thump, thump inside the walls. Due to Iris’s mental state, Lily cannot have a coherent conversation with her, so she cannot turn to her for explanations. All she seems to be able to talk about is “Poly.” Searching for answers, Lily begins to read “The Lady in the Walls.”
What was it they taught us back in grade school about journalism, the 5 or 6 questions a reporter must ask to get to the meat of the story? I believe it was “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why” and “how.” Well, this film fails at answering many of these questions. I know, this isn’t a report for the six o’clock news, this is a film, a work of art for Christ’s sake! Still, I believe much of the film’s criticism stems from its unapologetic ambiguity. Quite often, Lily narrates and speaks directly to us, the viewers. But it’s not always her that speaks. Sometimes it’s Poly. Thanks to the subtitles (I watch most films with subtitles) I knew who was speaking. Otherwise, I would have been at a loss. This is a problem with the “who”. “What” is this film about? To go into a deeper examination than what I have already explained is tricky, if not impossible. It’s one of those films that, when it’s all over, might cause someone to say, “What the hell did I just watch?” See, a problem with the “what”.
The “where” is achieved. A house in New England. This is “where” all the action (and inaction) takes place. There is nothing to be desired outside its premises. “When” does this film take place? The film doesn’t explicitly give a time period for the present-day action. But there is a wall phone with a long cord, a rabbit-ears television and a tape deck with cassettes, so one can assume it’s the 80s? Maybe? Then again, the story alternates time periods now and then, sometimes in confusing ways. Why and how is the house haunted? A vague answer comes from Lily herself as she narrates to us at the beginning of the film:
On ghosts in general
They have stayed to look back for a glimpse of the very last moments of their lives.
On ghosts haunting a house
There is nothing that chains them to the places where their bodies have fallen. They are free to go, but still they confine themselves, held in place by their looking. For those who have stayed, their prison is their never seeing. And left all alone, this is how they rot.
That’s about the best answer the film will give. If it’s not satisfactory then the appetite for further knowledge will just have to go unfed.
But, did you notice how awesome those quotes from the movie are? This is a film that wants to be a novel. Or a poem. There are many more poetically haunting slices of narration. Perhaps the most quoted is the first narrated line of the film:
I have heard myself say that a house with a death in it can never again be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts that have stayed behind.
Beautiful, right? With the right visuals properly synced to such beautifully haunting words comes a moving experience. This synchronization happens many times. “And left all alone, this is how they rot”. We see the rot in the mold on the walls, in the mysterious black puncture wounds on Lily’s skin. “Their prison is their never seeing” Enter the blindfolded woman, the original doomed occupant of the house.
The film moves in dreamlike sequences, nonlinear at times, with metaphors painted over the loose edges. I might be so bold to state that I might have liked this film better if it doubled down on all this. Forget any attempts at a straight story, just move with the words and use the camera to paint the images the words tell us to see. I am willing to bet the naysayers would only scream a louder “nay” at this suggestion. And who am I to suggest such a thing but a slightly overweight guy in the bowels of his house. If I had to grade this film on a letter scale, allowing for +’s and –‘s, I’d give it a solid B. B from the basement.