Everyone just stop. Stop right there, and LISTEN to me.
I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is the single scariest movie I have ever had the pleasure of watching. And it’s not a slow cocking of the gun that releases at the end in mind blowing terror with a start, or a scare. It is mind-alteringly scary right out of the shoot. I was scared out of my mind from the get go. Heck the opening credits were mind numbingly frightening to me. Like, I almost bagged out on it I was so unnerved. Sound design. Darkness. Blurry woman. Scary face. Check, check, check, check, CHECK. Gah.
Let me back up and say this, I’m not a horror fan per se. Gallons of fake blood? No thank you. All I can think about is the poor actor that is having to wallow in the grime. But if you give me a thriller with a amazing conceit and a realistic setup? I’m all in. I have actually been looking for crazy scary books for years on this site. Books like The Shining, House of Leaves, Annihilation… etc. But I sort of accidentally stumble into scary movies as opposed to going and looking for them. Actually seems like I’ve discussed a number of intense movies lately accidentally, movies like Super Dark Times, A Ghost Story, Mother!, It Comes At Night, quite a lot of examples, and I’m not even really trying.
But HOLY COW are people throwing all kinds of shade at this movie everywhere. Some call it boring. Some call it pointless. Some I think are coming in assuming that the movie is a horror flick, and are truly confused as it turns out to decidedly not be a horror… at all. But if it isn’t a horror flick, then… what is it? I’d argue that The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is a movie that sits squarely in the Psychological Thriller camp. Here, if you want to see a poor reflection of what a movie is really like… then just watch this trailer if you haven’t already seen the movie. But better yet, if you haven’t seen it, go find it. Save this tab. Come back later and read the rest of the review.
HERE BE DRAGONS…
The rest of this post is 100% spoilers. From top to bottom. And of all the movies you want to see tabla rasa? This is the one. Promise.
So the movie kicks off with one of the most intense openings I’ve ever seen:
“The pretty thing you are looking at is me. Of this I am sure. My name is Lily Saylor. I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago I turned 28 years old. I will never be 29 years old.”
But this movie is dripping with darkness. The house is an 1812 house that seems to be completely lacking in electricity. Were there even any light switches in the entire movie?!? Regardless the movie is a set of matryoshka dolls that are interwoven one with the other. Lily Saylor, a live-in nurse, (played by Ruth Wilson – of Locke fame) has been hired to take care of Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss), a retired horror author that now suffers from dementia. But Ms. Blum doesn’t call Lily Lily. Instead she calls her Polly. Which, is strange, but hey, Ms. Blum has dementia after all. So, whatever. Until Ms. Blum’s estate manager, Mr. Waxcap (Bob Balaban of Close in Counters Fame, etc), explains that Polly was a character in Ms. Blum’s most popular book, The Lady In The Walls. So, obviously Lily is curious, who is this Polly, and what is her story?
But – and this is key – Lilly is mortally afraid of anything scary, including books, and especially movies. So try as she might, it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for her to figure out what this Polly is all about.
Books within Movies within Books
Can I just pause a moment and just admit something right now? I am a sucker for movies inside movies, inside books, inside plays, inside books, inside movies. I absolutely adore it when a movie is playing out and the director drops in a play inside the movie that is foreshadowing of the movie, or the play’s outer shell. Right? A great example of this would be like Moulin Rouge, but better than that? The Complete Clouds of Sils Maria. Wherein it was almost impossible to tell when Valentine and Maria are really talking to each other or when they are rehearsing their lines. The lines might as well be a more accurate description of their relationship that they aren’t choosing to say to one another. Right? Books like S by J.J. Abrams? Or my favorite, House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Which, really is impossible to describe, and you really just have to read it. Maybe the most recent relevant example is Nocturnal Animals, wherein we have a novel being read within the movie structure. And both have a direct relationship to one another right?
But why am I so into embedded stories? Because it’s not happening accidentally. In Nocturnal Animals it isn’t a fictional story (well not completely anyway) and in this movie, the book is a foreshadowing of the things to come. But Lily doesn’t know what happens in the book, she is too frightened to find out. And there in lies the rub.
Who Is The Girl Inside The Walls?
Mr. Waxcap has told us a truth from his limited knowledge or vantage point. Right? He’s told Lily that Polly is a character in Ms. Blum’s most popular novel. But we also know that it is Blum’s only novel that Blum didn’t write an ending for. Which, sorta seems odd. No? And as the movie continues on we realize more and more that the reenactment of the book that we are seeing isn’t actually a book, but rather real life. We are seeing the reenactment of the husband and wife that built this house that Lily is now living in.
And if this is actual, real life, and the trick or the conceit of the entire movie is that the book was real life, and that Ms. Blum has been communicating with the ghost, Polly, then Ms. Blum and Polly are just borrowing this house from the dead as Polly is want to say through the entire movie. So obviously the girl inside the walls is Polly. And Polly is also the pretty thing in the house, right? Wait, wait, wait… not so fast.
Who Is The Pretty Thing In The House?
As the movie ducks and weaves, and trundles it’s way towards more and more unnerving details – we begin to wonder what is in the wall, and why there is mold there. I mean, we aren’t wondering. We know exactly what is in the wall. But poor Lily has no clue whatsoever what is in the wall. So she begins working with Mr. Waxcap in order to get it repaired. “But I don’t think the estate will pay for this repair because it is cosmetic, it isn’t in the bones of the house, if you see what I mean.”
And the movie is barreling towards a chaotic and unavoidable end. We have already been told at the opening that Lily doesn’t make it through the next year. We know that she is deathly afraid of all things scary. She has been seeing small signs throughout the movie but has managed to convince herself that she in fact was seeing nothing. The phone, her hands, the reflection in the TV, etc etc. And we also know that Ms. Blum confronts Lily – assuming that she is Polly, and tells her that beauty never lasts – that she’s going to rot and fall apart like a flower. Which, in fact she has already done in the hallway wall. So if Polly was the original pretty thing… and Polly is now rotted in the walls, who is the pretty thing? Well, it is obviously Lily who will soon rot like a flower.
Sure enough, one evening, investigating a sound, Polly heads downstairs and sees the spot where boards of the wall where the mold was spreading were pulled away. And like a complete loon, she goes wandering around the main floor of the house, only to have Polly follow her. Backwards, no less. And eventually, arriving back at the front door, where the boards were removed, Polly makes her grand appearance. And, quite literally, scares Lily to death. Soon after, Ms. Blum dies for lack of a caretaker. Days, weeks?, pass and finally Mr. Waxcap comes to investigate, to find Lily dead at the front door, and Ms. Blum dead upstairs.
The Final Circular Reasoning
But then the movie continues. And that was where I got a little confused and had to re-watch the ending a couple times. And that is because Lily, the Pretty Thing in the House, begins roaming the house, and the time, to watch as events unfolded before she was even born most likely. We watch as Ms. Blum writes her most widely read novel. We watch as the next family moves into the house. See see Lily stop in at the door to Ms. Blum’s writing room and we see Blum sense her presence and call out for Polly. And with that we are now sure that we know that The Lady in the Walls was written by Ms. Blum’s communication with Polly, who told her the story of her life, and her death. It’s why Ms. Blum chose to not tell the ending of her story, out of respect for her life.
My Question For The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House…
My question though instantly was… was Lily actually Polly? Do we have A Ghost Story thing happening on our hands? I really thought I was on to something. It makes sense! Ms. Blum called Lily Polly throughout the movie. Lily had similar pretty characteristics. Lily started the movie out saying very clearly that she was the pretty thing in the house! SO THAT’S IT! Lily is Polly!
No. Nice try Holmes.
Just because these stories overlap and intertwine doesn’t mean that they are the same. It seems highly bizarre that even a displaced ghost could kill itself from fright. But man, that would have been a tight interweaving! So cool! No. No it wouldn’t have been cool. Because the story dovetailed with itself. We see one innocent woman bludgeoned with a hammer by her husband after he builds her a house of their dreams. And in the other? We have an innocent young woman that isn’t into horror novels or scary movies getting killed by an innocent interaction with Polly.
In the Bible it talks about the effects of sin being passed down for generation to generation. This seems like a real manifestation of that idea. The curse has settled on the house. Lily is borrowing the house from Polly. And in this interaction, Polly accidentally kills Lilly. No, isn’t that what happened? What are your thoughts on the movie? Did it scare you half as much as it scared me? Maybe something really hit me that was personal? I don’t know. But her voice and the reverb distortion, the absolute lack of light throughout the entire film. The faint traces of the ephemeral Polly and blurred nature of how the set her up. The lack of definition as to why Polly’s husband bludgeoned her to death and buried her in the walls. The set design. The music. All of it tightly wound into a chord that basically choked me to death. And I loved every minute it. I don’t know, what did you think of it?