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I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016)

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The Figure In The Carpet

Braving the awkward title of Oz Perkins’ second movie is rewarding in a slow burn, delicate way reminiscent of Henry James’ ghost stories, meaning that gore hounds will be vastly disapointed: evil and dread are not conveyed by blood splatter here (are they ever?), but by mold and rot, two phenomena that take time to set and crawl up on anything, first and foremost the human soul.

The patient viewer will also have to brave a gorgeous opening, more Venice Biennale video installation then title sequence, featuring a girl in period dress slowly walking backwards, her face unstable and her shadow reluctant to follow her. She’s evidently a ghost and she will show up a few times during the course of the movie, scaring the main character to death in its climax, even though it is far from being its spookiest scene. This walking backwards is actually chilling, and reminded one of a line in James’ The Wings Of A Dove when the heroin “turns her face to the wall” and decides to let herself die. There is no moving forwards for ghosts: they stay stuck where they die and, says the voice-over, “you never buy or rent a house when there was a death, you borrow it from the ghost” rotting there somewhere dark, more hiding place than shallow grave.

Following the opening there is a curious scene that could have been lifted from a pinhole photography version of Paranormal Activity, then we get to meet our heroin, Lily (Ruth Wilson, excellent in a role very different from her serial killer turn in the Luther TV series, her broad forehead and crual mouth somehow reminiscent of Nicole Kidman). She’s a hospice nurse and is hired to take care of Iris Blum, an ailing crime writer (Paula Prentiss, spooky as hell in a role initially written for Debbie Harry) who wishes to die in the Shaker house in which she wrote all her books, including her most successful one, The Lady In The Walls. Lily is “an easily scared girl” and only takes a peek to the first pages of the book before putting it down, but ‘that it’s curiosity that kills the cat, and even this innocent foray into a book sold at train stations and airports seals her doom. If it doesn’t seem very suspenseful to you, you are mistaking: what Oz Perkins achieves with some noise, a mold stain on a wall, a phone cord and the corner of a carpet is amazingly disquieting.

When Lily arrives she’s obviously devoted to her job and willing to blend in as much as possible, to the point she’s actually color-coordinated to the window dressing. The Grateful Dead (natch) t-shirt she wears at night however betrays her as an intruder. Soon enough Miss Blum calls her Polly and chastises her not to have visited for much too long. In the lone scene she actually talks to her nurse, what she has to say is both discomfiting and dreadful: “It’s a terrible thing to look at oneself and all the while see nothing”. The ghost story author is the ghost of herself, missing the ghostly companion who inspired her best work.

Old crooner songs float across the spotless interior of the house (including one sung by Anthony Perkins, Oz’s father), alternating with Harold Budd-like piano music. A fuzzy TV screen become a witch’s black mirror. Meticulously composed images unnervingly frame a chair hung to the kitchen wall or a door, painted black, from which a non-agressive version of Evil corrodes the core of Lily’s existence. She founds musty old letters and once again curiosity gets the best of her. All the while, an oppressive sound design nurtures apprehension, all dripping water, buzzing meat flies or white noise atmospherics. When Lily concludes her voice-over, her voice cracks like an old record. She’s still the pretty thing in the house, even though she doesn’t quite lives there anymore, not as we humanly understand it. Viewing advised.

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