THere wasn’t a lot of Shirley Jackson in Haunting of Hill House, Netflix’s sensationally scary but very loose adaptation of the prolific American suspense writer’s most famous novel. Mike Flanagan, who wrote and directed the miniseries, drew clearer inspiration from a different master of the macabre – the King, instead of the queen, of bestselling horror fiction. For a closer approximation of Jackson’s uniquely unsettling voice, that gift she had for raising the hairs on the back of a reader’s neck, look instead to a more compact ghost story released by the same streaming service two years earlier. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House isn’t officially based on any of Jackson’s more than 200 published tales. All the same, her spirit haunts its every frame, flickering faintly from its darkest corners, like the white-clad apparition who shifts slowly into focus during the film’s eerie opening shot.
Jackson is basically a character in the movie. Her lightly fictionalized proxy is Iris Blum, aged author of “the kind of thick and frightening books that people buy at airports and supermarkets”. Iris, played by the veteran Hollywood actor Paula Prentiss (and by Erin Boyes in flashbacks that really drive home Jackson as the spectacular inspiration), is not long for this world. And so into her secluded, tastefully decorated Massachusetts estate comes Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson), the hospice nurse who will take care of her until the end. The film doesn’t play coy about the presence of a third, spectral resident – the spirit is, again, the first thing we see, glowing against the shadows – and it doesn’t disguise the dark fatalism of Lily’s circumstances. As she’ll quickly reveal, she’s narrating this story from beyond the grave, calmly portending her own certain doom.
That running commentary, so eloquent and insinuating, has a certain Shirley Jackson quality to it as well, like the first-person prose of some lost manuscript, dusted off and repurposed into distinctly literary voiceover. It’s one of a few unconventional methods writer-director Oz Perkins deploys to get under the audience’s skin. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is primarily an exercise in expertly sustained effort. Perkins, who first made the campus witchcraft thriller The Blackcoat’s Daughter and later the grungy revisionist fairytale Gretel & Hansel, knows how to tune every aspect of his mise-en-scène to a particular spooky wavelength. He favors passages of ominous stillness and quiet, interrupted by something occasionally going bump in the night (and by the warble of a score by his folk-rocker brother, Elvis). And his bleary supernatural visions evoke the faded illustrations of yellowing pulp novels.
There’s a mystery here, too, involving the previous occupant of the property, who Iris worked into one of her spooky page-turners. (Lily’s musings occasionally bleed into recitations of the novel in question, with cutaways to Lucy Boynton as an unfortunate young newlywed who meets a grisly fate.) But Perkins is much more invested in vibe than plot. He’s after the particular sensation of reading a really creepy book late at night, letting your mind play tricks on you, becoming dreadfully attuned to every groan and creak of an old dark house. To that end, Wilson makes for an ideal heroine. Long stretches of I Am the Pretty Thing amount to a one-woman show, with the Affair star wandering the haunted digs, blathering nervously to herself to keep her fear in check. It’s a wonderfully eccentric performance, Wilson lending Lily a wallflower neurosis that somehow seems at once modern and old-fashioned. Her anachronistic presence suits a story about people frozen in time through untimely demise.
There’s something out of time about the movie, too. Its floridly elongated title hints at unfashionable pleasures – the way it denies the conventional payoffs nestled into even the slowest of “elevated” slow burns. (Let’s just say that Iris’s last name should not be mistaken for a promise that her home will eventually become a Blumhouse of jack-in-the-box frights.) For Perkins, son of Norman Bates himself, horror is a seance. He dedicates his second feature to his famous father, who makes a cameo on a rabbit-ear TV, raising a rifle on the battlefield instead of a knife in the shower. And just as passionately, the film communes with a whole library of blood-chillers and nerve-janglers from a woman who churned them out like clockwork, her imagination always racing with some fresh nightmare to inflict on a gratefully petrified readership. Whatever the name on the deed, this is Shirley Jackson’s house. It’s a haunting place to visit.