*Despite not being directed by a woman, IATPTTLITH is being featured for WiHM as an exploration of its women characters. It was also shot by a woman, Julie Kirkwood.*
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House opens in a pitch black netherworld. From afar, as if you are peering into an old kinetoscope, a grainy sepia image of a young woman in an old-fashioned billowing dress slowly turns as if rested upon some crooked music box, her head an odd and disfigured blur. We hear in the voice-over monologue a woman with a mangled and disembodied voice. “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,” it tells us. This opening sets the atmospheric tone the rest of the film follows. Director Osgood Perkins attempts to explore three perplexing female characters who face what death means.
The story revolves around a young nurse named Lily who comes to care for the elderly Iris Blum in her home, a former horror novelist who now suffers from dementia. Lily informs us in the voice over that although she is now 28, she will not live to see 29. An intriguing set-up that, for many viewers, never quite seems to pay off by the film’s end. Iris Blum continually refers to Lily as “Polly.” Lily soon learns that Polly is the protagonist of Blum’s most popular novel, The Lady in the Walls. Although easily scared, Lily continues to pursue the mystery of Polly until she finds that The Lady in the Walls was no fictional horror story. Polly is real and haunts Blum’s beautiful 19th century Massachusetts home.
IATPTTLITH uses a popular recent horror trend, placing the characters within a timeless space. Props such as televisions with rabbit ears, phones with rotary dials, and 19th century furniture pieces craft a disorienting alternate dimension. It traps Lily within a metaphysical purgatory, the disorienting antiquity placing her somewhere between mortality and living. Perkins uses languid pacing that stretches the audience’s patience, and to frustration for many. He focuses on the minutiae of quotidian horrors; a phone wretched out of Lily’s hands, a mysterious growing dark spot on the wall, and a snail’s pace close-ups of various household objects enshrined with sunshine and the small swirls of floating dust particles. We are the hovering presence of the ghost with watchful, receptive eyes. This imagery and timelessness coupled with archaic and ornate voice-overs render the film as more of a moving poem, a ghost “portrait,” rather than a typical ghost film. In fact, Perkins’s elaborate prose seems better suited in novel form rather than the cinematic medium (especially considering the story–within–story structure). For example, “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.”
What do these cinematic choices mean for his female characters? I believe Perkins’s languorous pacing mirrors the lingering emptiness of ghostliness. Iris Blum and Lily both feel this same sense of isolation, abandonment, and invisibility. We learn Lily is healing from a failed relationship. She tells her friend over the phone that she took this job because it is “good to be away” and “put herself away” from the world at large. She is all alone with Iris, and Iris does not even know her name. Iris has no family and does not have a single visitor. Iris is trapped within her foggy mind, the former vibrant and imaginative writer now stripped away by a degenerating brain. This brings to mind the film’s voice-over dialogue–“It is a terrible thing to look at oneself and all the while see nothing. Surely this is how we make our own ghosts. We make them out of ourselves.” Perkins often uses the word “rot” to describe this formation into a ghostly being. Lily lets herself “rot” away in her isolation, seeing herself as a prisoner unworthy of any form of companionship. For Iris Blum, one can only imagine what it must be like to have dementia, to have your brain “rot” and strip away your entire sense of self. Both characters are making themselves ghosts, drifting over a melancholy space of what used to be their life, not fully living but not yet dead.
The character of Polly ties into the somewhat problematic ideas of film’s lengthy title. A flashback reveals that Iris’s house was built by her husband as a wedding gift. With no reasons given, the husband kills her with a hammer and hides her body within the walls. Her lack of story seems to conclude that she was punished simply for being a “pretty thing.” What are Polly’s intentions as a ghost? Why is she haunting Lily? Is she mad at Lily for replacing her as the “pretty” thing in the house? For snooping through her possessions? Is she mad that Iris is no longer alone and they cannot uphold their confiding relationship? Why did Polly tell her story to Iris? Many of these questions go unanswered. Iris chastises Lily–who she believes to be Polly– later in the film. She tells her, “You poor, pretty things whose prettiness holds only one guarantee. Learn to see yourself as the rest of the world does, and you’ll keep. But left alone, with only your own eyes looking back at you, and even the prettiest things rot. You fall apart like flowers.” This rhetoric seems to support the idea that pretty women deserve to be hated by those who are not, and that they are waste to society because their looks are all they have to offer. But life has its revenge on them by withering their once renowned looks, but those who are “capable” or “smart,” as Iris infers, can always endure.
I am not quite sure what to make of the film’s conclusions and its ideas of “prettiness.” I enjoy films that place female characters outside of a romantic gaze, so I liked the character of Lily because she was an odd dork. She didn’t swear, called herself a silly billy, and gave names to flowers. You do not typically see women like that in other films. Yet, the director’s good intentions are lost in the floral language and the film’s message seems to be troubling–here are female characters that seem to be focused on the reception of their gaze. They succumb to tropes and do not subvert them. Osgood Perkins certainly gives an odd cinematic flair to his images and uses his unique and impressive prose to shape interesting themes, but he ultimately fails his promising female leads. “The pretty thing you are looking at is me,” Lily tells the audience in the last line. Only a pretty thing, indeed.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.