Writer/director Osgood Perkins has been peeking at my Shirley Jackson book collection, and he's already read through my favorites: The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson, who penned chilling ghost stories and moral tales in the ‘40s, '50s and '60s — like her short story "The Lottery" — is widely regarded as the queen of horror, greatly influencing the likes of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and now, very apparently, Perkins. His sophomore feature, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival and now is premiering on Netflix), is a magical amalgam of those novels, something like the most atmospherically faithful adaptation ever of a Jackson book that never existed — a slow-paced, spine-tingling odyssey into a character's crumbling psyche.
Perkins wastes no time at all in getting fated hospice nurse Lily (Ruth Wilson) into a specter-ridden old Massachusetts home, where she announces to us in voice-over that she's 28 years old but will not reach the age of 29. Of course, if you’ve read any Jackson novels, you know that’s not really a giveaway — what is really frightening is the how, the slow, circular fall into quiet madness.
The how of Perkins' I Am the Pretty Thing is so chilling, so purely artistic, that I found myself scribbling four full pages of notes to remember my thoughts in the darkened theater. This is not a movie of gore or plot. Instead, voice-over in lyrically written prose from the nurse guides viewers on a meditation through the haunted house while we watch her fix the carpet that’s always somehow folding over (even though she’s the only one who’s walking around) or run her finger over a bubble under the whitewashed walls of the pristine colonial home of her new patient, the elderly horror novelist Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). The bubble begins to rot, infecting the panels with a bloom of black mold — the devil is in the details.
There is a ghost of a young woman, Polly (Lucy Boynton), glimpsed in fleeting moments, like a faintly glowing gossamer shroud in a pitch-black room. As strange as it sounds, those images are largely disconnected from the scenes in the house, but all are linked together with that Jackson-ish first-person narration, like a read-aloud novel, which allows the story to explore some heady territory with poetic words. Yet it’s all still very scary.
Wilson reveals Lily’s off-kilter inner workings in a way that suggests the actress Lili Taylor, so much so that you may wonder if Perkins named the character for her. Taylor tried her best in the role of a Jackson heroine in the big-budget adaptation of Hill House — The Haunting (1999) — but that film shied away from Jackson’s conception of plot as secondary to atmosphere and character. Wilson and Taylor share a rare ability to convey childish anxiety or display just a glint of potential madness in the eyes without going overboard; Wilson’s scene-stealing role on the British detective show Luther anticipates aspects of Lily, but here she projects them to the polar opposite of Luther’s murderess: aching naiveté.
As Lily lies in bed reading one of Iris’ novels — The Lady in the Walls — she tells herself, “Oh, grow up, you old scaredy-cat.” Just as in Jackson’s tales, we get close enough to an embarrassingly virginal heroine to empathize with her outsider status, even if her adolescent fears are so unbecoming of an adult. She’s complicit in her own demise — she tells us she knows she should leave, but doesn’t. Lily simply doesn’t possess the emotional tools to stop what’s happening; she is the id of every awkward, bookish teenager.
Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood oscillates between deep and shallow depth of field, blanketing much of the frame in a hazy blur with the latter, never racking focus to find the subject. Descending the stairs, Lily glides at a snail’s pace into clarity — Kirkwood lets the actress come to her. Odd low angles also prove effective. The camera does not move up or down; it’s either peering upward or downward while stationary, or panning molasses-slow from left to right, which takes enormous skill and patience for a camera operator and leaves the impression that every scene is a smeared memory.
All the action takes place inside this house, like a sealed coffin. The windows are closed, but not tight enough to lock out the overwhelming chirping of insects, like a thrumming pulse that only grows louder and harsher as time wears on, pattering rain replacing the crickets. The house and costumes are all shades of white and goldenrod, clean and bright contrasting with the black spore infection. There are no heavy shadows, mostly just light and dark, so when Lily peers from the lit hallway to a gauzy-black room beyond, it’s difficult to tell if she’s actually seeing a ghost or conjuring it from her imagination. And in this film, the framing is such that there is nearly always a darkened room just beyond the one that's lit.
There's an atmosphere of moisture, of never feeling dry or right or comfortable, even when everything on the screen is seemingly beautiful. It's unsurprising that Perkins’ father is Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame (and so many other less commercially successful but art-house–worshiped movies), as there are clearly shades of his father’s subtly chilling yet undeniably endearing performances in this film. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is the very best of Gothic horror, that which needles at your insecure core and whispers in your ear what you already suspected: You will never be all right.