I would describe 'I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House' as a Gothic short story (or maybe even a Gothic poem) brought to the screen. But forget about all the tropes and visuals that are associated with this genre, it is instead focused on what for me is the essential element of Gothic literature: The dead are alive. This doesn't seem like much to build a narrative on, and the driving force of "Pretty" indeed is not plot, nor characters, nor the solving of a mystery. And while all three things are embedded into its narrative it is first and foremost a tone poem. An important thing about the the-dead-are-alive notion, especially in this film, is that it goes both ways. The living can sense the presence of the dead (AKA ghosts), but the dead actually live on after their death, probably mostly concerned with reliving their past, but they might also be able to sense the living. So who is haunting who?
Consequently "Pretty" presents a ghost story within a ghost story, to put it in simplified terms. In more concrete terms the plot concerns Lily, a nurse who stays in the house of elderly horror fiction writer Iris Blum, to take care of her until her death, which shouldn't be too far into the future now. But it also wouldn't be too wrong to say that the main character is the house that had a few occupants over the course of its lifetime. I don't mean this in the tired old this-and-that-place-is-like-another-character-in-the-film way, the personality of the house certainly is made up of all the people who lived in it. But writer-director Oz Perkins takes the expression "If these walls could talk" and makes it a reality. It is about the people who lived in the house (or more correctly the people who died in it), but for all intents and purposes the main character is the house itself.
"Pretty" starts with nurse Lily's first day at the house and her opening narration tells us that she just turned 28 years old, but that she will never be 29. She talks about death, memory and says "From where I am now, I can be sure of only a very few things." One of those things is her name. So right from the beginning we know that Lily (at least Lily as a narrator) is already dead. Logic dictates that what we see on screen are her hazy memories of her short time in the house. Can we trust her words and can we trust what we see?
In any case, old Iris Blum doesn't talk much. But she keeps calling Lily by the name of Polly. And Lily seems to sense some ghostly presence in the house. Polly, as we soon learn, is the main character of Blum's most famous novel "The Lady in the Walls", a novel of which Blum said it lacks an ending because of "an obligation to be true to the subject" for Polly didn't tell Blum about her ending, but Blum tells us that she is convinced that "as endings go, Polly's was not an especially pretty one." Incidentally there also slowly emerges an ugly, moldy stain on one of the walls in the house that Lily grows concerned about. Is there some connection?
Perkins leaves the viewer in the dark for most of the film's running time about the concrete connections between all the characters, as slow and eventless as the whole thing is it is difficult to keep track of all the points of view. For example Lily isn't the only one whose voice-over we hear, we also hear and see young Blum as she writes the novel, and we hear and see Polly. Those voices also aren't particularly easy to distinguish, and it gets even more complicated when scaredy cat Lily finally dares to pick up "The Lady in the Walls" to read at least parts of it, the content of which is told from both Blum's and Polly's point of view. Through the viewer's natural desire to know the answers the film evokes ideas on the way as we contemplate all the possible answers. Did Polly really exist? Is she buried behind the wall? Are Lily and Polly somehow the same person? Is Lily a fictional character altogether? Or is Lily only imagining things?
Like a poem or a song it evokes first and foremost a tone, a mood, and sparks ideas of what it might be about. It takes further readings/listens to find that in between all the lines it actually tells a story, a simple story perhaps, but nevertheless a story. And this is actually how 'I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House' worked for me. The tone and the ideas immediately took hold of me, but it took me two viewings to really make sense of the narrative. This isn't without its drawbacks, because frankly it isn't so much difficult to follow because it floods you with information that you need to sort out, on the contrary, it basically is so eventless that it poses a challenge to stay attentive for the whole time. This was, however, clearly a conscious choice by Perkins, and his approach is nothing if not consequential. But it makes criticisms of the film being "boring" particularly understandable in this case, "Pretty" indeed is very one-note, and unless it is a note you relish or that you learn to relish, it won't be enough for you to satisfyingly get you through a whole feature film.
As it turned out after two viewings, the solution to the mystery is quite concrete and surprisingly not at all convoluted. Nevertheless the ending for me is as chilling as it is simple, and it beautifully circles back onto itself, like a chorus that keeps coming back, just what you would expect a story told by a ghost to be.