Oz Perkins, 2016, USA-Canada
Generally my superficial rule for ghost story satisfaction is that it be waist-deep in atmosphere and comes bearing one big scare. ‘I am the pretty thing that lives in the house’ delivers this, although I am sure its slow pace and somnambulistic narration will put many off; yes, your mileage may vary. It’s arty and modern in execution but old-fashioned in sentiment. Director Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony) offers the complete opposite of the James Wan style ghosts, those that blur into demonology and embolden the concept of the horror genre as cattle-prod cinema. They don't even have the malevolence of those in MR James. These ghosts just wander around – like cinematographer Julie Kirkwoods’ camera that seems to get into every corner – and it’s the human’s reactions to them that defines the encounter. It’s a bold move, to resist making the ghosts engage in the pro-active behaviour of poltergeists to force scares, to simply allow their presence just to seep into the wallpaper over years. In fact, it’s just about popularist suicide to draw out the aesthetic and not to give in to conventions as they are now for the genre, for commercial cinema doesn’t really like to wait five minutes for things to happen. It seems that Netflix is showing that they can be backers and home to these cult offerings that won’t be for everyone.*
But this is a tale slight of narrative (some may say underwritten) and acute with atmosphere. I don’t tend to like voiceovers but here it is essential to the mood as it is a voiceover with character agenda as opposed to a narrative expositioning and filling in gaps or telling you what you are seeing. It works much like a hypnotist’s voice, quietly lulling the viewer as it’s saying how the ghosts of houses just allow tenants rent the space. Lily (Ruth Wilson) is a loner, retreating from a soured relationship by taking a job as a carer for a once successful author (Paula Prentiss). But she’s walked into an already haunted scenario. And it’s a feminine one too, pinned upon the vulnerabilities of characters as many great ghost stories are.
You may be thoroughly bored at the slow-slow-burn, or you may wallow in the measured unfolding, the deliberate passing of time. Its uncompromising nature is what distinguishes it, the thing to be celebrated. Have ghosts ever been portrayed so prosaically? Here they creep around and have an afterlife consciousness that is surely candidate for the closest rendering of the ambivalent but pervasive existence ghosts are often imagined to have in the casual encounters we all anecdotally hear. We see the ghosts long before Ruth does, time quite falling upon itself as impressions such as prose poetry and balladry take over the idea of straightforward narrative as we wait all the while for Ruth to have an encounter. And we know she will: “Three days ago I turned 28 years old,” she begins; “I will never be 29.” You can feel the makers relishing the old-fashioned tropes and showing that, yes, they still work. Yeah, and I did jump at that one scare and marvelled at its banality in retrospect (it’s all in the editing and reaction).
· Even Netflix offerings such as ‘iBoy’ are surely to be commended for their efforts in demonstrating low-budget ambition over big budget tendency to play safe.