Whether you call them apparitions, ectoplasms, or guilt-ridden hallucinations, ghosts have made their presence known in and out of fiction. Ghosts have a creative edge by being universal and interpreted in many forms. They can be vengeful sprits or helpful guides to the living. Netflix’s newest ghost story, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, is a more traditional take on the ghost. They are opaque, haunting and a real hassle for the living. With such an established trope (and before I make a bad ghost pun), let’s take a look at what I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House brings to the table.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is about a hospice nurse named Lily (Ruth Wilson) who is hired to look over the elderly Iris (Paula Prentiss) in her haunted estate. The movie opens with narration from Lily retelling her deadly experience in the house and from there the her words come to fruition.
Soon after moving into Iris’ home things begin to go bump in the night and a the spirt of Polly begins to haunt Lily. Throughout the movie we come back to Lily narrating the events that occur until the very end.
This narrative structure in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House becomes one of its greatest strengths. In the past we’ve seen this story structure be used in many influential movies. American Beauty’s (1999) Lester opens the film by telling us that by the end of the movie he will be dead; The Shining (1980) almost takes up the entire first act to tell us that Jack will go mad and hurt his family.
What all these movies have in common is explicit telling of exposition and plot early on. This is a risky decision because you reveal what’s going to happen. In the two mentioned movies this concept works out great and I would argue that it also works well in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House.
The narrative structure in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House help animate the ghost. By just looking at the ten word and 26 letters title you can notice the imbedded poetry. All of Lily’s narration throughout the movie can be considered lines of poetry that give life to the ghostly imagines we the audience watch.
Let’s take this early voiceover for example, “I am very seldom required to wear white by my employers. But, anyway, I always do. It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched, even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw”.
Even without watching a television set and reading it strictly off this page you can conjure up a ghost story. The word white in a hospice setting implies an imagine of purity waiting to be tainted by a ‘sickness’. A very gothic simile of darkness closing in like a claw also accompanies Lily’s narration. This narrative structure helps I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House tell its story by accompanying the images of ghosts with lively and poetic words.
But it seems that poetic narration comes with a price. At times, such a stylized voiceover leaves much to be desired through the camera lens. I agree that slow and deliberate camera work, lighting and sound add to an ghostly atmosphere, but more often than not I felt it was too slow and deliberate for its own good.
There are multiple examples where static shots, that show nothing more than a dark corridor, sits there a bit too long. It becomes an issue when the narration begin to outshine the pictures. As a result some scenes come off as awkward that leave you thinking if you missed something in the dark. Both the pictures and narration should work in tandem to tell the story (and for the most part they do).
Without a doubt I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’s greatest strength is its poetic narration. That can be a good or bad thing for viewers expecting a movie. I strongly advise you to watch this one with the subtitles turned on to really grasp my point, it really can stand as its own.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is not an explosive horror rush. Despite some pacing issues and details overlooked, it tells its ghost story through well-thought out poetry. In the end, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House proves to stand a ghost of a chance with horror cinema today.