The ghosts of House of Stories: a belated look at “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”

This post contains major spoilers for “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” available on Netflix. My opinions and interpretations of the film might not match yours.

Like the movie’s main character, most horror sets me screaming, but I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is a slow-paced, atmospheric film that feels more like a long, rainy day. Though there are a few jumps, it’s fairly obvious they’re coming. The film takes advantage of its own theme of looking without really seeing. It hints that it could be a typical ghost story, offering a few scares and Hitchcock-style manipulation (such as zooming in on dark doorways) that play up the eeriness, but the ghosts in this house aren’t actually here to scare you. 

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is the story of three women shut away from the world: Lily Saylor, a hospice nurse and our narrator, who is recovering from a failed engagement; Iris Blum, the aging writer she cares for, who has isolated herself for years hoping that Polly Parsons (the ghost who once dictated a novel to her) will come back after a prolonged silence; and Polly herself. More than a hundred years earlier, she was murdered in the house by her new husband. According to Lily, all three will linger there as ghosts. 

I first watched the film when it came to Netflix in 2016 and have never been able to get it out of my head. Its reviews are polarized. People either love or despise it. It trends toward self-important. But while I would’ve been more critical of it a decade ago, my mark of an effective story has become one that lingers. Don’t go into it expecting a ghost story along the lines of The Sixth Sense. Nothing is solved. Pretty Thing leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. The film is character driven rather than plot, and we don’t get to know any of the characters very well. But as a story exploring what happens when we lock ourselves in the past, it’s effective. 

Polly Parsons

Pretty Thing was written and directed by Ozgood Perkins, son of the late actor Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame. (His dad has a small cameo toward the end, in the movie Lily is watching.) The film is set entirely within a spare, historic two-story home. Behind the film’s discordant score, the warbling song “You Keep Coming Back” haunts from start to finish. Despite the eerie setup and slowly zooming camera, however, the emotion the film evokes isn’t terror but sadness. 

Not one of the film’s titular pretty things moves on from her past. Lily doesn’t learn anything from the year in Braintree. We never see her call her ex-fiance or visit friends—perhaps they’re all back in Altoona. Lily is, for unsaid reasons, living in Massachusetts when the film opens. Iris has no visitors during the story’s eleven-month time span because she spent the second half of her life in isolation, obsessively waiting for Polly to return. And Polly continues to walk the house like she did the day she died, something Lily tells us in her opening speech is a decision ghosts make: they choose to stay where they died, watching over and over the final moments of their lives. “But the memories of their deaths are faces on the wrong side of wet windows,” Lily warns. Ghosts don’t fully understand what they’re seeing. 

Like them, we don’t fully understand what Lily is showing us as the film progresses. We accompany her through the final year of her life, beginning the moment she steps through the front door on Teacup Road. We’re with her when she encounters clues about what’s coming: the molding wall, the vision of her bloated arms, the flipped-up carpet, the eleven months in the house seeming to pass overnight. (She even wears a Grateful Dead t-shirt at one point—on first pass it’s just a detail to establish the film’s time frame, but on rewatch seems more like dark humor.) Though we have an idea of what the movie has in store, like her, we don’t quite see what’s coming. Lily doesn’t seem to remember she’s dead until she relives it. When she eventually recalls her death and reminds herself that she can leave the home at any time, she ultimately chooses to remain for another look “at her”—whether Polly, Iris, or herself is unclear—and we finally understand this was not the first. 

Lily Saylor

The film’s prominent theme is women who are discarded. Polly’s new husband murders her and leaves her body in the wall. We aren’t given the history of Lily’s breakup with her fiance, but we know he hasn’t called and doesn’t have the number for the Blum house—she never says it directly, but her depression suggests that he left her. “It’ll be good to put myself away,” she tells a friend on her first night in the house. By contrast, Iris Blum has stayed isolated for decades by choice; but her estate’s caretaker, Mr. Wexcap, ignores the house’s worsening mold problem since Iris is dying and he’s eager for the estate to take control as soon as possible, discarding her as easily as Polly’s husband swung the axe. 

“[Pretty things] fall apart like flowers,” says the aptly named Iris to Lily shortly before their deaths. It’s already too late for them, of course, but the film’s warning is ultimately for the viewers: See things for what they are and beware of lingering in the past, or you’ll trap yourself there.

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