'I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
Classy vintage horror with a literary flavor.

Actor turned director Osgood Perkins pays sly homage to his famous father Anthony in this Toronto-launched ghost story, a debut star vehicle for Ruth Wilson.

There is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that Osgood Perkins, son of Psycho star Anthony, has recently emerged as a writer-director of high-class horror movies. One of the buzzy premieres at last year's TIFF was his debut feature February, a blood-chilling shocker about a killing spree at an all-girls school. It was later renamed The Blackcoat's Daughter, and is finally set to make its long-delayed U.S. debut next year. In the meantime, Netflix have commissioned this classy sophomore effort from Perkins.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is a lightly gothic murder ballad made with great finesse and a fine cast, including a rare appearance by semi-retired screen veteran Paula Prentiss. Proving February was no fluke, Perkins has made a vintage haunted-house thriller that owes more to the creeping dread of Polanski, Kubrick or Lynch than to more bloodthirsty recent subgenres of horror. It may ultimately impress more with its brooding literary atmosphere than with its familiar narrative ingredients, but this crisp little mood piece still jangles the nerves. Following its big-screen launch in Toronto, it debuts on Netflix October 28.

Perkins lays his cards on the table from the opening scene, an impressionistic montage of ghostly imagery wrapped in a lengthy poetic voiceover about how the dead are only ever dimly aware of how they actually died. The voice belongs to Lily (Ruth Wilson), a neurotic young nurse who has been hired to care for ageing horror novelist Iris Bloom (Prentiss) in her eerily remote home in rural Massachusetts.

Partly modeled on the cult mystery writer Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House, Iris is best known for her spooky hit novel The Lady in the Walls, about a young newlywed called Polly who was murdered in the 19th century. With her mind now clouded by dementia, Iris insists on calling her new nurse Polly, mistaking Lily for her most famous literary creation. Already highly strung, Lily increasingly falls prey to scary noises and visions as she creeps around this creaky old house, which seems to be haunted by the ghostly bride (Lucy Boynton).

A Golden Globe-winning Brit, Wilson (The Affair, Luther) handles her debut leading role with aplomb, couching her credible American accent in nervy mannerisms that speak volumes about Lily's brittle, paranoid nature. Still a striking beauty at 78, Prentiss has little to do but look scared and confused, while Bob Balaban provides reliably deadpan comic relief. Perkins also pays wry homage to his father, who makes a fleeting cameo on a flickering TV screen. The director has jokingly described I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House as a reunion for the cast of Catch-22, which co-starred Prentiss, Balaban and his father.

With its female-driven narrative, its irony-free faith in vintage horror tropes, and its unspecified but minutely detailed retro setting, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is a stylistic sister film to February. Indeed, many of the same key creatives worked on both. Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood deserves special mention for her command of uncanny mood shifts, conjuring up maximum unease with glacially slow zooms into deep shadow, light-footed prowling and precisely framed interior shots. Another returnee is musician Elvis Perkins, the director's brother, who amps up the suspense with off-key pianos, ominous drones and slithering soundscapes full of phantom menace.

Production company: Netflix, Paris Film, Zed Filmworks, Go Insane Films
Cast: Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Lucy Boynton, Bob Balaban
Director, screenwriter: Osgood Perkins
Executive Producers: Alphonse Ghossein, Matt Levin, Ian Bricke
Producers: Rob Paris, Robert Menzies
Cinematographer: Julie Kirkwood
Editor: Brian Ufberg
Music: Elvis Perkins
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Vanguard)
No rating, 87 minutes