Horror Double Feature: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and We Are Still Here
As regular readers will recall, I had a series on this blog titled Hulu Horror Double Feature. You may have noticed I haven’t written any of those in a while, and you may have also deduced that I stopped doing them right around the time that Hulu went to an entirely subscription-based format and got rid of all its free content. Since our household already pays for a Netflix subscription, I wasn’t gonna pay for Hulu as well, especially since I unfortunately don’t have loads of time to watch stuff. So from this point forward, whenever I do more recent double feature posts, the reviews will be of horror films that are featured on Netflix (or, for older ones, on YouTube‘s or Amazon‘s pay-per-film service). I do realize that this limits my options somewhat, as Netflix isn’t actually known for having a vast horror movie library (though they have improved somewhat this year, and hell, I may pony up for a Shudder subscription one of these days), they have enough decent-looking recent flicks that I can probably squeeze at least a few long-form posts out of ‘em. So consider my Hulu Horror Double Feature category to now be a more generic Horror Double Features. And that’s all I have to say about that.
With that requisite housekeeping out of the way, let’s settle in for our opening salvo in the new improved Double Feature category. The first movie I’m discussing is one I’d been hearing a great deal about since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and although reviews were somewhat mixed, most of the negative reviews I read complained only that the movie was too slow, spare, and minimalist. Well, to me, that’s like an open invitation. Because if there’s one thing I love and can’t stop harping about on this very blog (see my reviews on The Haunting, Soulmate, House of Last Things, Yellowbrickroad, and pretty much any ambiguously creepy ghost story), it’s eerie, slow-burn, vaguely surrealist ghost stories that show very little but leave a lingering impression on the patient viewer.
By now you may have guessed that I’m going to be talking about 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Directed by Oz Perkins (son of the legendary Anthony), and starring Ruth Wilson (best known in the US for her work on the Showtime series The Affair) and Paula Prentiss (best known, at least to me, for starring in the dynamite 1975 movie adaptation of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives), the movie is a master class in using subtle cinematography and sound design to engender a cloying atmosphere of dread that pervades every frame of the film, even though nothing particularly terrifying appears to be happening. One review I read stated that the film was what it would look like if David Lynch decided to adapt a Shirley Jackson novel, and to me that seems to hit it right on the head.
The rather simple plot involves a neurotic hospice nurse named Lily Saylor who is sent to a remote old house to care for Iris Blum, a retired author of pulp thrillers, who suffers from dementia. During Lily’s eleven-month tenure, it comes to light that the house may or may not be haunted by a spirit named Polly Parsons, the subject of Iris’s most famous novel, The Lady in the Walls, whose ghost supposedly told the story of her tragic murder to Iris some years before.
Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that right in the first few minutes of the film, Lily herself breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience straight out that she is going to die, and the fact that Iris insists on calling Lily by Polly’s name, as well as the fact that the theme of ghosts forgetting how they died comes up several times, suggests that something more ambiguous than a simple haunting is taking place, and that perhaps our protagonist Lily is not exactly what she seems.
The movie is essentially a story inside a story inside a story. Was Polly a real person who was murdered in the house and whose ghost still remains there? Or did Iris just make her up, and is Lily conjuring the spirit out of her nervous imagination? Is Lily, in fact, dead the whole time and acting as the ghost herself throughout the entire film? I Am the Pretty Thing could be read in myriad ways, which is one of the aspects contributing to the creeping unease infusing its entire run-time.
The plot of the film, though, such as it is, is really not the star of the show. That would be the almost unbearable buildup of uncanny dread which makes the viewer feel unmoored in a waking nightmare. The gorgeous cinematography (by Julie Kirkwood) focuses on the house’s stark, neutral interiors to great effect, wringing eerieness out of every unsettling, off-center shot of white walls juxtaposed against blackened doorways beyond, of a stubbornly folded corner of carpet, of an empty chair pushed against a wooden table. The movie’s portentous framing of ordinary objects as sinister is quite Lynchian and very, very effective in building up tension, as the viewer is never sure what they’re going to see. Even though standard “jump scares” are almost non-existent, we are kept constantly on edge waiting for something awful to happen, just because of the way the cinematographer plays with our expectations.
Also contributing to the film’s sense of free-floating anxiety is the fact that its time frame is never firmly established (though judging by the clothes Lily wears, the phone in the house, and the presence of cassette tapes, I’m guessing it’s the early to mid eighties), and that Lily herself is an almost painfully awkward character, a prissy, repressed throwback to an earlier era. Her uncomfortable interactions with estate manager Mr. Waxcap (played with an almost undetectable straight humor by Bob Balaban) ramp up our anxiety on her behalf, a very intriguing way of making us relate to her situation. In this way, Lily is very much like the character of Eleanor in Shirley Jackson’s brilliant Haunting of Hill House. And similar to that novel, the “haunting” in the Blum house seems to be analogous to the slow unraveling of Lily’s mental state, or alternately her slow-dawning realization that she herself is a ghost, either literally or metaphorically. The fact that most of her early voice-overs are later revealed to be paraphrases from Iris’s novel about Polly Parsons drives this point home rather succinctly, as do the recurring images of rot and fragmented reflections.
While I will admit that for those who enjoy more straightforward, plot-driven horror, I Am the Pretty Thing might seem like a boring, overly-indulgent slog to nowhere with few big scares, no huge payoff, and long, lingering shots of furniture and faces with very little dialogue or action. But for those like me, who enjoy more cerebral horror that is more interested in building a mood and getting underneath the viewer’s skin with its nebulous oddities, there is much to recommend here, though I would add that it is best watched alone, at night, with no distractions, so that you can get entirely lost in its world and lulled into its creepy spell. It’s definitely a movie that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it, and that in itself is a wonderful thing for any horror film to do.
Next up on the double feature is a far less experimental film that had its premiere at another recent film festival (in this case South by Southwest back in 2015), and although the movie was highly lauded, favorably compared to the splendid It Follows, and ended up on a lot of critics’ “ten best horror films of the year” lists (including Rolling Stone’s), I honestly wasn’t all that crazy about it, though it did have some entertaining moments.
Directed by Ted Geoghegan and packed with horror movie all-stars (Barbara Crampton from Body Double and Re-Animator; Lisa Marie from Ed Wood, Mars Attacks, and Lords of Salem; writer/actor/director Larry Fessenden from Session 9 and much, MUCH more), We Are Still Here has a fairly standard horror movie set-up. The main characters are a middle-aged married couple, Paul and Annie Sacchetti, who move out to a remote house somewhere in New England following the death of their college-age son Bobby in a car accident. Shortly after they move in, a few little things happen around the house that suggest maybe Bobby’s ghost has come along for the ride, but it doesn’t take long at all before the audience realizes that something far more infernal is going on than a harmless lingering spirit.
It is in fact this nearly immediate blowing of the entire horror wad, as it were, that I think is one of the film’s main weaknesses. It gets off to a promising, low-key start, with some effectively eerie shots of the roads and the isolated house all covered with a blanket of snow, with very spare dialogue that nonetheless conveys the deep grief the couple is feeling, and with very understated hints that something in the house might not be quite right: a picture falling over, a strange noise in the cellar, a ball rolling down the stairs.
The choice to set the film in 1979 was also a decision I’m on board with, as not only does it help to evoke a golden era in horror cinema (also evidenced by a few subtle references to classic horror films of the period, such as The Changeling and The Shining), but it also gives it an otherworldly feel and more of a sense of dread, since the problems that arise can’t be solved by Googling stuff or calling for help on a cell phone.
But really, as soon as the couple’s obviously not-to-be-trusted neighbors show up about ten minutes in and start going on about the house having been a mortuary and the family living there supposedly being run out of town for stealing corpses back in 1859, and making reference to the house needing “fresh souls,“ it all just gets a bit too on the nose and seems to move along too quickly with no regard for subtlety or restraint. And then once the electrician comes and the audience is pretty much shown exactly what happens to him, all sense of anticipatory dread is lost, for we have already seen everything there is to see. From that point on, it’s just more of the same, only bloodier.
Clocking in at only an hour and twenty-three minutes (and a not insignificant chunk of that is the long end-credit sequence), I think the movie might have actually benefited from being a bit longer, so that the characters and story had more room to breathe before everything went all demonic and wacky.
That said, I think the film also would have REALLY benefited from taking everything down a notch or ten. While I generally don’t have a problem with copious gore or jump scares per se, there is a point at which you’re going so far over the top that the story is just not scary anymore and veers over into unintentional comedy. The burned-looking ghosts were cool, for example, but I didn’t need to see them in my face every few minutes, which significantly lessened their impact. The gore was fairly well-done, but I didn’t need everyone to die in enormous, ridiculous sprays of blood and chunks like the second coming of Dead Alive.
In fact, I think the entire reason that this movie didn’t really click with me was because its tone seemed all over the place: on the one hand, it seemed to want to be a serious horror film, but then on the other hand you had these kinda goofy, over-acting characters who shamelessly chewed the scenery and dropped boatloads of exposition at pretty much every opportunity when the audience could have figured out the story just fine without all the over-explaining. Either do a serious horror film or do a horror comedy; it takes a very deft hand to make a decent film balancing elements of both, and I just felt like this wasn’t really getting there.
I admit I did like the séance scene with Paul and stoner dude Jacob, and I sort of liked the overall premise of the movie, which was marginally in the vein of a 70s-style, small-town folk horror type deal, and I sort of liked the creepy weirdness of all the townsfolk being in on this big secret, but other than that, I kinda found my attention wandering during the movie, since I pretty much knew where it was going, and when I was paying attention, I was cracking jokes about it, which I can assure you did NOT happen while I was watching I Am the Pretty Thing. While I can see why a lot of horror fans dug it, it was just way too obvious and over-the-top for my tastes, trying to smack you in the face with HORROR, and it seemed like it was trying to be too many things at once at far too frenetic a pace. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out