I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is a Netflix original ghost story that haunts more with its quiet beauty than with fear. It’s a love letter to the lyrically chilling Shirley Jackson and a study on the lonely emptiness of ghosts unable to move past the shock of death. We use ghosts to scare ourselves, to play on what we fear may be lurking in the shadows, to explain the memories of the dead that weave into the fabric of our minds, but this film is more of an atmospheric look into what it feels like to be a ghost, as well as the sort of mundane, low-grade terror of suspecting you live in a haunted house.
Horror films are usually rife with ghost scares, but there’s something about the possibly of ghosts that can quietly chill you, leave you wondering, cowering, seeing things in shadows. Some particular dark corners, and lonely creaking in some places can breed a terror the mind easily fills with ghost stories. While Lily reckons with living in a haunted house, she’s also in the presence a living, breathing ghost. Ms. Blum’s former self as a vibrant, imaginative writer is now striped away by a degenerating brain.
It’s a gorgeous film with whispers of delicious prose, which is enough of an experience for some, including myself. But there are drawbacks that some may find unrewarding. The tale itself is thin, and the title is long and sounds pretentious, but it’s actually another homage to Shirley Jackson. The pacing is slow, and there is no satisfying payoff for the audience’s patience. Instead, the end withers into the lulling loop of haunting.
It’s not a ghost story as much of a ghost portrait. Ruth Wilson plays Lily, a hospice nurse sent to live with an ailing horror writer, Iris Blum, who seems to be molded after Shirley Jackson. It’s suggested that her most famous book The Lady in the Walls, might be based on reality. Lily stays in the place for a year, and you know from the start that she will be dead by the end. The time in between her arrival and her demise is spent ticking away the hours: reminding Ms. Blum that she is Lily, her nurse, and not the protagonist in the book, obsessing over an malignant-looking mold creeping on the wall, and generally dealing with the isolation of living all alone with someone who has dementia. The build is slow, and the death itself feels uneventful, but the movie lingers on with its beautiful sense of gloom.