I’m a huge fan of ambient, abstracted horror, but it’s a difficult formula to pull off. The quietly unnerving thrills of titles like Evolution, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Under the Skin, and The Witch are a lot more difficult to pin down than the inventive kills, gruesome creature designs, and effective jump scares more conventional horror films rely on for easy success. It’s always a bigger risk, then, for a horror picture to reach for that atmosphere over genre thrills ethos and I greatly respect I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House for its ambition in chasing menacing abstraction. Unfortunately, though, this straight to Netflix cheapie never quite commands the confidence & soul-shattering dread needed to make its abstracted, intangible terror worthwhile. Instead of dealing in unnerving ambiance, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House winds up feeling like a studied exercise in emptiness. It’s an admirable stab at abstract horror, but the blade misses its mark and the audience walks away dazed, but entirely unharmed.
Part of the reason this small scale ghost story fails to connect with its atmospheric target is that its central victim never feels like a real person. A live-in nurse caring for an aged horror novelist finds herself alone for days on end in an ancient home. She explains several times in her near-constant narration that “A house can’t be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts who stayed behind.” Although an ostensibly modern character, she always speaks in this measured, inhuman way, breathily peppering her dialogue with phrases like “Heavens to Betsy,” and explaining herself to be a notorious scaredy cat. What follows is a low rent version of Guillermo del Toro’s revivalist Gothic horror Crimson Peak, with the scaredy cat nurse investigating a possible murder committed in the house, one hinted at in her patient’s novel The Lady in the Walls (a nod to the similar in tone short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” no doubt). Her fascination with this mystery slowly ramps up tension in a series of increasingly bizarre hallucinations, but never culminates in a satisfying way, mostly because the audience never really gets to know or care about the one character who quietly witnesses them.
I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House very nearly reaches a worthwhile sense of menacing, abstracted dread in its third act hallucinations. Body horror scares mix with characters plucked from costume drama murder mysteries and a score of eerie hums to hint at the better movie this could’ve been with a better-defined lead character or more of a climactic playoff. Less-patient horror fans will be immediately turned off by the film’s whispered narration & representations of ghosts as feminine figures stalking blurred, black voids, but I don’t think that dedication to stillness & quiet is necessarily its worst impulse. I just think the movie fell a little short in achieving something memorably unnerving. The most immediately significant aspect of the film that comes to mind as I mull over its distinguishing details is a bit role from Bob Balaban, who was barely in the picture. This kind of abstract, loosely held together horror requires a lot of concentrated dedication from its audience’s end, which means that when it fails to make the effort worthwhile it’s easy to feel frustrated with its more glaring shortcomings. I respect I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House for reaching for such a lofty, intangible goal, but it never quite met me halfway in achieving it.