As Jon Sheasby brought up in his review of Cargo, watching a film in the comfort of your home might seem to be anathema to the entire experience of filmgoing. At the 2018 Split Screens Festival in New York City, writer and film curator Dennis Lim suggested that the act of going to a film in a theatre is an act of surrender; you have to sit there, in the dark, and give yourself over to the film and the choices of the writers and directors and actors bringing the story to life in front of your eyes. Unlike being at home, you can’t pause the film to make more popcorn or get a Coke refill, or if you’re tired or unhappy with the film or can’t stomach the subject matter. And you know that the moment you walk into the theatre; there’s a social contract being entered into as soon as you buy your ticket. That doesn’t exist in a home theatre setting; it didn’t exist when Blockbuster existed, and it doesn’t exist now with streaming services providing ever more options for home viewing.
Watching Oz Perkins’ 2016 film, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, I was struck by this distinction in the very opening minutes of the film, wherein I quickly realized that my living room wasn’t dark enough to fully appreciate what was being seen on-screen and I was forced to retreat to my bedroom, with my room-darkening sleep shades (but without the surround sound…#FirstWorldProblems) so that I could actually see what was on my screen. It was the first and only time I have ever lamented not being able to watch a film in a theatre.
Oh, it didn’t last long. This film made me forget entirely where I was, wrapping me up in the strange security of the titular house’s whitewashed walls beneath which something is lurking…always lurking…
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. To go back and forth, letting out and gathering back in again. Worrying over the floors in confused circles. Tending to their deaths like patchy, withered gardens. They have stayed to look back for a glimpse of the very last moments of their lives. But the memories of their own deaths are faces on the wrong side of wet windows, smeared by rain. Impossible to properly see. 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.
I’m not entirely sure I can describe what happens in this film because I don’t quite yet know exactly what happened myself. The opening scenes — the ones that were too dark for my living room — take us around the interior of what appears to be a Victorian home, while a slowly-cadenced voiceover explains the nature of hauntings. We learn in this opening v/o that the narrator, Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson) — a hospice nurse hired to care for an elderly former horror novelist with dementia, who lives in a rambling mansion at the end of Teacup Road in Braintree, Massachusetts — arrived at her new job three days after her 28th birthday, and that she won’t live to see her 29th. We could talk about spoilers and how they are either the bane of our existence or something that makes filmwatching enjoyable, but the fact that we know our protagonist is narrating her own demise from within the first five minutes of the film does something to our experience of the narrative. The question of her survival off the table, we’re left with the dread of how it happens, wondering if it’s something we’ll see before our eyes, fearful that each moment she’s seen on screen will be The Moment. It’s a unique feeling, and an interesting choice for a filmmaker to make.
At any rate, we know that our narrator is dead, so it frees us up to be immersed into the plot. Lily moves through the story the same way she moves through the house: like gossamer, her pace glacially slow as she examines mysterious noises and strange splotches of mold growing on the walls. She’s always dressed in white — a choice she tells us early on is for her patients’ sake, as it helps them to see her as untouchable by the diseases that consume them. There’s little need for Lily to have a backstory, which is probably why she’s not given much of one; it’s not that we don’t care, but it’s just not central to our understanding of her. She was once almost-married, and she has a friend outside the home whom we see her speaking to on her first night in the house (watch that phone cord!). But we know from watching her that Lily is prim and proper, and mouse-like in her timidity; she is afraid of most things, and especially of the creepy old house she’s moved into and the written work of the elderly Iris Blum. Lily can’t bring herself to read any of Iris’s novels — they sit lined up on pristine white shelves in one of the rooms of the house — but Lily knows enough about them to describe them as the type of “thick and frightening books that people buy at airports and supermarkets.” Not a very glowing review but hey, publication is publication (and some of my favourite novels came from checkout counters).
Iris insists on calling Lily “Polly”, which is the name of the protagonist of Iris’s most popular novel. Ms. Blum’s estate agent (and Lily’s boss) Mr. Waxcap (played by a rather droll Bob Balaban) explains this to Lily when she finally thinks to ask him about it, nearly a year later, and with the ever-present countdown clock ticking in the backs of our minds we can’t help but wonder how this misidentification will play into Lily’s inevitable death. Of course he won’t tell her how the story ends — it has no ending, he says, because Iris felt an obligation to leave it unfinished — but he insists she read it for herself, which — because of her fear — she refuses to do.
In the past almost-year, Lily has also noticed strange signs of black mold growing on the white walls. It’s impossible not to read this as a symbol of the rot inside the home, but we haven’t been given much else to work with to truly underscore our understanding of the home yet. That’s what makes the film so unsettling. Lily’s unease isn’t telegraphed by jump scares; there’s no blood pouring from the walls or dark and stormy nights. But the house is absolutely unsettling and you cannot escape that; the fact that we can’t pinpoint exactly why is just another part of what makes it so frightening. The sun seems to always shine on the simple if austerely Puritan surroundings. What is so scary about that? Why can’t we figure it out?
Of course we start to learn about Polly. Lily tries reading the novel, and we’re treated to scenes that seem like they’re flashbacks (as they occur inside the house Lily and Iris occupy in the present day) but which might simply be from Iris’s book and Lily’s imagining of the setting of that particular plot. Here, we learn that Polly was the wife of the home’s original builder, who murdered her and hid her body behind a section of the wainscoting in the entry hall where the mold has been growing. While Lily pieces together the story — which, it seems, may not be fiction but rather a depiction of actual events narrated by Polly’s ghost to Iris over the years — she begins to see Polly’s ghost herself in the house. She also sees her own body afflicted by mold and rot. Something is happening…but what is it?
Lily’s death arrives and the story of the film ends with both Lily’s and Iris’s bodies being removed from the home some time after their deaths. We see the home occupied by new owners. But a house cannot be owned after a death has occurred within it, we have to wonder how long this will last. Lily is there, along with Polly and presumably Iris too. They’re the pretty things that live in the house now.
I didn’t know what to make of this story. This isn’t a standard ghost story. While it reminded me of The Others (and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw before that), it doesn’t have the “rootedness in reality” that I would expect from a typical historical horror story. The film isn’t interested in that. Rather, like a tone poem or a mood piece, Perkins delivers a meditation on place. We don’t need objects to fill the rooms when we have Lily whispering through the rooms instead. She haunts the film from the first frame, to the point that I’m left wondering when she became a ghost in the first place, or was she always one? Lingering, restrained camera shots focus on emptiness and yet fill that emptiness with so much ghastly promise that nothing becomes everything. The fear — as it is with all the best horror films — comes from what we don’t see rather than from what we do see. Lily’s final, dreadful scream tells us all we need to know about what she witnesses in the hallway that night; an amateur filmmaker would have shown us her point of view, but Perkins doesn’t need to. The film is better for it.
Then there’s the issue of making sense of the story. Some might argue that’s not necessary but of course this is something we humans are good at doing, so we try our best. On the surface, it seems as though Iris Blum told the story of Polly’s murder, which was told her to by the ghost herself, and published it as a novel but — curiously — without a firm ending out of a sense of obligation to the restless spirit of the young murdered woman. This ghost haunts the house still, and comes to haunt Lily, resulting in her death by fright at the end of the film and her subsequent haunting of the same house.
That’s a fine interpretation, but it leaves me wanting. This is a story with nested stories within it; that was a deliberate choice on Perkins’ part, and as such I think it needs to be given serious thought: we’re watching a story by Perkins about a story narrated by Lily about a story written by Iris told her to her by a woman named Polly. And now, you’re reading a story I’ve written about Perkins’ story, and so on and so on. That’s significant.
I also don’t think it was coincidental that a horror author is the impetus for the plot. It’s Iris’s home we stay in for the entirety of the film. She wants to leave her estate to a deserving woman writer upon her death (she even calls it a “House of Stories”). And her novel serves as both the actual history of the home and the driving force behind whatever it is that Lily experiences as she winds her way through the last days of her life. But just as I wondered when Lily became a ghost, I have to wonder what came first — Polly or the novel?
Let’s unpack that a bit. As a writer, the characters I weave into the plots I create become as real to me as people; by the end of a story, I’m sad to see them go. Like Iris with Polly, I wait for them to tell me their stories and I transcribe what I hear (or, at least, that’s what it feels like sometimes). I am the vehicle for the stories of others. Were they real before I gave voice to them, or by giving voice to them did I make them real?
Is Iris’s unfinished story a result of ghostly Polly’s disappearance from Iris’s side? Or is that simply an extended metaphor for writer’s block? Is this why Iris is so mad at Polly for deserting her? Has her muse left her high and dry? We see flashbacks of Iris as a young woman, trying to write and distracted by sounds in the hallway — is she looking for Polly’s ghost, or is she looking for her inspiration? Further to that notion, is her dementia the end result of this writer’s block? Metaphorically speaking, does not being able to fulfil yourself creatively cause atrophy the way not using your muscles causes your limbs to cease functioning?
It certainly feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?
Whatever you think of this story or the film or my writing about both, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is a different kind of experience. Not just because you’re watching it in your own home — complete with its idiosyncratic histories living within its walls — but because it invades your home. It gets under your skin. It won’t let you go. Netflix allows for that in a way that a theatre can’t. You can leave the theatre, walk away from the film, close the door and never look back; if you watch it in your bedroom, with the curtains drawn and volume high, you can’t always pull the covers up high enough to block it all out. And when it comes time to go to sleep…well…that’s a whole other story, isn’t it?
I was skeptical that I’d find a film on Netflix that could utilise the medium in such a way. I found one in my first crack at this series for 25YL. I’m really looking forward to seeing what else is out there.