Monday 5 February 2018

We Don't Go Back #78: Pretty February Things

February, AKA The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015);
I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016)

Folk horror works at its best on the closeness of its subject matter; it is best in a place that isn't uninhabited but rather is abandoned, lonely. A haunted place near to the town, all the more isolated because of its very proximity. The comfort of human company might be just around the corner, but it might as well be a million miles away. Wind up alone, even in a place you sort of know, and it doesn't take long for the corners to seem inhabited by inchoate evils, by whispering threats.

Its precisely this sort of feeling that the best folk horror tries to duplicate. It's not that the uncanny invades the prosaic; it's that it was there all along, and it's making itself known. Even the most rational of people, the ones who know with absolute certainty that there is No Such Thing, feel this sometimes.

Osgood Perkins's debut feature, February (released eventually as The Blackcoat's Daughter, but currently on UK Netflix under its original title) tries to capitalise on this exact feeling, tries to imbue it with a sense of diabolical evil. His second film, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, also explores the sense of emptiness that comes from a place having been inhabited, now left vacant. Both have strong expressions of mood. Both have heavily oppressive atmospheres.

February begins at the start of vacation time at a private boarding school somewhere in the USA, I'm thinking maybe New England – there are uniforms, there is snow – and two girls haven't been picked up. Rose (Lucy Boynton) has lied to her parents about when she's due to be picked up, and we quickly learn she's pregnant, that she needs a quick and discreet abortion; the younger girl, Kat (Kiernan Shipka), doesn't know where her parents are. No one can raise them.
A third young woman, Joan (Emma Roberts), a little older, we first see in a service station bathroom, trying to tear a medical bracelet from her wrist. Joan is hitch-hiking towards the school. She meets a couple who offer her a lift (James Remar and Lauren Holly), and we are unsure of the reason behind their kindness.

This could be the start of a coming of age drama or a comedy, a story about an odd-couple friendship, but the framing of the images, and the intense, oppressive sound design of Oz Perkins's debut film (as composed by the director's brother, Elvis; both are the sons of Anthony Perkins), leaves you in no doubt that this is a horror film; and yes, all three girls have the attention of Evil, capital-E existential Evil, and it's a shaggy silent Evil that whispers and cajole, and possesses.
Each young woman gets a third of the film where she is notionally the centre, her name on the screen. Rose, Joan, Kat. Later we'll discover that Joan is separated from the schoolgirls by more than distance, but closely connected nonetheless.

Very little actually happens in the film. It's very much what they like to call a Mood Piece, and taking its time with its events is a good thing. It builds on the feeling of supernatural dread to an almost exhausting degree. I suppose that the most obvious point of comparison if you're going to talk about diabolical evil overshadowing a girls' boarding school is Suspiria, but that's not it at all. Whereas Suspiria takes a goofy, manic glee in its horrors (and don't take that as a criticism, this is the best thing about it), February is deadly serious, and, at the end, combines its horrors with wrenching sadness. Kat becomes dreadfully aware, through nightmare visions, that her parents have died in a car crash, and becomes stranger and more ill-looking. Rose has her own problems and the pasty junior is just another one.

All of that emotion though, the sadness, the grief, the trauma, the fear, makes for an intensely disturbing watch, and February has an exceptionally bleak ending – this is the first film that gave me actual chills for ages (although that might be partly due to the shaggy, silent devil that haunts its corners – I have a peculiar horror of creatures like that). But it leaves just a few too many unanswered questions.

I like films that don't spoonfeed you. But there still has to be enough to work out what's going on. At the end, you can infer that Joan is in fact more intimately connected with the plot than you could have imagined (clue: her name may not actually even be Joan, but for that to make sense you have to suspend your disbelief to such an extent that the film has to change its category a little). The big reveal of the plot isn't dropped as confidently as it might be and it's actually possible for a first time viewer to miss it entirely.

But notwithstanding a twist that doesn't quite land as it should, it's a harrowing, chilling watch.
In I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, the isolated woman is Lily (Ruth Wilson), a hospice nurse tasked with providing live-in care for a now senile author named Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss, famously Bobbie from The Stepford Wives). Blum wrote horror fiction, and right from the beginning Wilson's whispered voice over introduces Lily to you and informs you that she will soon be dead.

Iris insists on calling her nurse Polly, and it turns out that Polly is the ghostly protagonist from Iris's best known novel, The Woman in the Walls, which Lily can't get more than six pages into because she's of such a profoundly nervous disposition.

And Polly (Lucy Boynton again) is a real ghost, or at any rate, the first ghost in the film, murdered a century before the action in the film, the main part of which can't be set after the 80s, with its snowy TV set and corded rotary telephone, and it wants you to think that, since the physical makeup of the TV and the phone are foregrounded as the drama unfolds and used to increase the sense of unease.
For a long time, a film marked Straight to Video was something to be wary of. You might occasion on a gem, but there would be an awful lot of nutty slack to wade through before you found one. For a while, that became Direct to DVD. Now the equivalent is Netflix Original, and I can attest that I have seen some absolute stinkers on the Netflix (for example, What Happened to Monday and Bright are two of the very worst films I've seen in the last 12 months, absolute train wrecks). I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is about as good as a Netflix Original is likely to get, frankly. It's not perfect, but it's a film that tries to take risks. It tries to make something better.

What surprises there are in I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House lie not in what happens but in when it happens and how it happens. Sometimes – more often than you'd expect – you can work out exactly when a scare in a horror film is going to drop by looking at your watch, but Perkins is almost perverse in the deliberate degree to which he tries to wrongfoot you.
Lily: The pretty thing you are looking at now is me.
Lily is a cypher in some ways. You see she had a breakup, she's nervy and that's it. But Polly is a single event too, and Iris Blum likewise exists as one event. More than one critic has complained that this speaks to a thinness of characterisation, and it's not an unfair charge, but I can't help wondering if it's deliberate, if the haunting depends, as hauntings do, on the inexorable gravity of a single event that must be replayed, eternally, in the sight of the haunted. And deliberate in the way that as all of our stories are told, we reduce them, and ourselves, to narrative events we retell and reframe more and more the further through our lives we travel, until the last story anyone tells about us, the story of how we die, becomes the only one.

All of the three main characters in the film are women, and at the start of the film they're shown to us explicitly as dead, dying and about to die. And they're framed in ways that are, again deliberately, repetitive. A shot of Lily at a table is called back by a shot of Iris as a young woman at a desk; Lily stares at us through the fourth wall, and so does Polly.
Polly: The pretty thing you are looking at now is me.
At the start of the film, Wilson's voice over tells you: “A house with a death in it can never again be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed by the ghosts who have stayed behind.” This turns out to be a programmatic statement. It's not a film about a person haunted, it's about the ghosts that haunt. It's very much a hauntological film, in that respect: like so many of the best folk horrors, it deals with a landscape that bears the mark of human history, of human pain, of human death.

The Genius Loci of folk horror is a thing of human origin, the mundane infused with the uncanny, which is the main dividing line between hauntological fiction like folk horror and the weird fiction of Lovecraft and his followers, where places and hauntings are alien, made of stars, distant. Even the Devil is a human construction, and without folk, what would even be the point of him?

That's the main link between these two films. Both are hauntings that depend on human agency, on a personal relationship with the horrors of ghosts and devils. Both depend on the mundane and the nearby haunted by the uncanny. Both are very human. This is why, I think, I liked both of them a lot more than I thought I would.

My Patreon supporters got to see this last week! To support my work and read early, please consider donating. No donation too small.