“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” would make more sense as a first feature from actor-turned-director Osgood Perkins — it’s an impressively if also somewhat self-defeatingly rigorous, near-abstract take on traditional ghost-story terrain, claustrophobic in both physical and presumed budgetary scale. Yet Perkins’ prior “February” (retitled “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” after a successful festival run) was a more accessible horror entry that expertly applied greater psychological nuance to slasher-cinema tropes. In both title and content, this followup is an exercise in willful idiosyncrasy that may have some limited appeal of its own, but does not feel like a step forward.
Apart from bookending exterior shots, virtually everything here takes place within the rather stark interiors of a modest 200-year-old Massachusetts home currently inhabited by Iris Blum (played by a mostly mute Paula Prentiss, who’s barely recognizable until we hear that distinctive voice). Miss Blum was a popular, prolific authoress of pulp thrillers. But now she’s a frail, seemingly senile old lady in need of a caretaker if she’s to stay in the house where she’s stipulated she wants to die. Her estate manager Mr. Waxcap (Bob Balaban) thus introduces a new housekeeper/nurse in the form of Lily (Ruth Wilson), a woman of about 30 who has the nervous, fussing, talks-to-herself ways of a stereotypical spinster from an earlier era.
Miss Blum has no apparent friends or family to maintain contact with — when she does converse with one pal on the phone, there’s a suspicion this “friend” might be the imaginary type. No one visits or even calls her anymore, either. So it’s a very solitary existence the high-strung Lily has signed on to, too much time and space in which to let her neuroses fester. She eventually realizes that “Polly” (the name her employee-patient insists on calling her) is the doomed heroine of Iris Blum’s most popular novel from more than half a century ago. But did this fictive figure have a real-life equivalent (Lucy Boynton) who actually lived between these walls? And might she still be there, her murdered corpse long secreted behind wallpaper and plaster?
A confessed “scaredy-cat,” Lily can barely bring herself to read the book in which that gruesome tale is told. Once she does, of course, her imagination runs wild. Then again, perhaps the house is actually haunted, and the eerie sounds and occasional specter sightings that worry her are distress signals from a restless spirit.
There’s barely enough scripted incident here for a 20-minute short. But then “Pretty Thing” is a mood piece whose cryptic narrative is just another among its minimalist aspects. The major exceptions to that rule are highly worked, spooky sonics, in which it’s often hard to separate Elvis Perkins’ score from the busy ambient sound design.
Slipping and/or being prodded into agoraphobic madness has been the lot of more than a few films about scream queens, from Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” in 1965 to Mickey Keating’s “Darling” last year. But Perkins holds back on the payoff jolts, relying almost entirely on atmospherics that are striking and effective to a point. They suggest a pared-to-the-bone Victorian Era societal rigidity that might result in murder (whether Polly’s or those associated with Lizzie Borden), as well as a kind of waking-dream state induced by the house itself as a malevolent force.
But intriguing as the resulting ambiance is, it alone can’t sustain the film. At a Toronto press screening, an older viewer’s eventual loud snoring illustrated one legitimate response to so much “mysterious” monotonous austerity. Beyond the festival circuit, it’s hard to imagine a big-screen audience exists for “Pretty Thing,” which is a pity, as what enveloping spell it does manage to cast will be significantly reduced in home formats.
Performing almost a one-woman show, fast-rising Brit stage luminary Wilson delivers a hardworking turn that nonetheless can’t render a familiar character type fascinating enough in a vacuum, with so little support in the writing. While Lily inhabits a house with a secret, there’s ultimately no good reason why she herself must also remain a cipher. Aesthetically, the stripped-down yet opaque qualities of “Pretty Thing” work to a degree. As applied to story and character definition, however, that same stylistic approach ends up making the film seem simply undercooked.