(2016) Gothic Horror (Netflix) Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Lucy Boynton, Bob Balaban, Brad Milne, Erin Boyes. Directed by Oz Perkins
Haunted houses are a part of our culture, both in the West and in the East. Spirits of the departed that remain behind, sad and sometimes angry, have a delicious fascination for us. Perhaps it is a part of our morbid nature, our obsession with death – after all, we’re all going to die eventually and we are fearful of that unknown. Sometimes that fear becomes something more.
Lily Saylor (Wilson) is a hospice nurse come to a clapboard home at the end of Teacup Lane in Braintree, Massachusetts (home to founding fathers John Adams and John Hancock) to care for Iris Blum (Prentiss), an infirm woman who was once a famous writer of horror stories, a sort of distaff Stephen King (or a latter day Shirley Jackson to be more accurate). Lily takes over the care and feeding of Ms. Blum at the behest of Mr. Waxcap (Balaban), the estate executor.
Almost as soon as she settles in she gets a sense that things are a bit off in the house. Although the house looks spic and span (and she takes great pains to make sure it remains that way), there is evidence that the house is beginning to show it’s age (it was built in the 19th century if not earlier) with walls warping somewhat and soon, a bloom of black mold appears on one of the walls. Then there is the tapping sound that manifests in the night and sound like they’re coming from inside the walls. And Lily is annoyed that Ms. Blum habitually calls her Polly. Who is this Polly that her charge has confused Lily with?
Lily investigates and discovers that a brutal murder took place in the house many years before; a young bride (Boynton) was killed by her groom (Milne) on her wedding day. The bride’s name was Polly. Furthermore, Iris wrote a book about it, The Lady in the Walls. The book’s conceit was that a writer was communicating with the murdered bride but the communications mysteriously stopped. Lily attempts to read the book but is soon unable to continue; a sensitive soul, she is easily frightened. That’s not such a good thing in a house like this.
One of the most difficult subgenres of horror to do is the Gothic horror. Gothic depends heavily on atmosphere and creating that atmosphere of foreboding requires a great deal of patience. You have to have the right cinematographer and Perkins chose a doozy in Julie Kirkwood. She not only has a terrific eye but she also understands the mechanics of what makes a great atmosphere; slow camera movements that never jerk the audience around when the camera moves at all, angles that are unsettling without being overt, and a palate of white and goldenrod, making the film look not so much washed out but like an antique photograph. The result is that the movie looks like you’re looking back in time (in fact the scenes are set in what appears to be somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s) at tragic events unfolding.
That sense of foreboding is set right off the bat with Lily’s narration. “The pretty thing you’re 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.” The narration is for the most part pretty flowery which at times can be eye-rolling. It is also delivered in a flat monotone, as if Wilson is reading a book aloud which adds to the creepiness.
Wilson has shown some pretty sizable acting chops, particularly in the BBC series Luther but here she’s oddly lifeless, as if she’s already become a ghost and is simply awaiting the formalities. I would have also liked to get a bit more backstory from her – we are led to understand that she’d been involved in a romantic relationship but it ended badly – and a little more emotion from Wilson. Then again, it might have been a conscious choice to play Lily as someone extremely repressed emotionally speaking.
Prentiss doesn’t have a lot to do but the former comedienne is certainly a welcome sight. She hasn’t appeared onscreen in nine years and it’s good to know that even though her part is small (but important), she is still out there working.
There are not many haunted house movie clichés here but enough to be unwelcome. Still, overall this is an extremely strong and welcome entry into a genre that is largely ignored these days. Fans seems to like their horror more visceral than subtle these days. Perkins has an impeccable pedigree and even though this is just his second feature film in the director’s chair, he’s served notice that he is a talent to keep an eye out for.
REASONS TO GO: There are some exquisite images here. It’s always nice to see an actress the caliber of Paula Prentiss working. The atmosphere is truly haunting.
REASONS TO STAY: A few too many haunted house tropes are present here. The dialogue is pretentious in places. Wilson comes off a bit flat tonally.
FAMILY VALUES: Some unsettling images and an overall atmosphere of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins is the son of the late Anthony Perkins; the song “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” which is played several times on the soundtrack is sung by his father; the movie clip that Lily is watching on TV is from Friendly Persuasion in which Anthony Perkins starred.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting of Hill House
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Why Him?