There is a point beyond which suspense does not increase. It’s a point that every filmmaker and editor should know, and avoid. In the words of a theatre director I once knew: “If you think your timing is just right, you are too slow.” He said this about most scenes, although maybe some scenes in horror movies are allowed to go on a little longer until the tension almost reaches tipping point, but even for horror flicks, there must be a limit to how long an audience is scared by ominous rumbling and blurry shadows moving in dark corners. It’s likely that horror movies depend more on suspenseful arcs than other genres. Obviously, writer and director Oz Perkins thought he would shoot his second feature I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House a tad too slow, because slightly slower means slightly scarier, right?
Well, no. If you are not David Lynch, then pay close attention to how fast or how slow you want your suspenseful key scenes to go on. Horror is all about creating atmosphere and tension, foreboding and terror. You have to have some kind of structure; latter scenes have to build on earlier scenes. Of course, it is possible to alter any and all rule of moviemaking – if you know exactly what you are doing with your material. If in doubt, play it straight.
Horror movies also heavily depend on how they are cut by the editor. A lesser horror movie is cut like any other action movie, rather with too many cuts than with too few, as if the biggest slasher of them all is the film’s editor; a high-end horror flick will depend on slower cuts and resort to jump scares only when really needed. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House thinks it’s a smart haunted-house flick, but it lets its tension evaporate by letting its slow scenes go on for too long.
There are moments when Polly (Lucy Boynton), the ghost haunting her childhood home, moves agonizingly slowly from room to room. The nurse who cares for Polly’s mother (Ruth Wilson and Paula Prentiss) moves faster because she is alive and Polly’s victim, but both Polly and Ruth utter their lines as though they are drugged. And these are lines that are choke-full of meaning about how ghosts haunt the houses they died in, and so on. Those voice-overs are too doom-laden and too slow at the same time. Nothing scary comes from them. And then Oz Perkins, son of Anthony, cuts to Polly’s mother, her lips not moving, but her voice coming from the off, muttering something about her family. It all can work in another movie that knows how to pick up the pace. This is a missed opportunity; Ruth Wilson is brilliant in Luther, just as Lucy Boynton is wonderful in Sing Street.
I usually like slow movies. There is something to be had in Bela Tarr’s Satantango, although it’s a seven-hour endurance test with some of the slowest scenes ever shot on film. The point is that there is always something going on in Bela Tarr, even if it’s just time passing, wind blowing, snow falling, a man sitting and watching. Perkins leaves you with a marker, usually a person, real or ghostly; he makes you follow that person, and then makes you aware of how slowly that person actually moves. Even for me, things should have gone on a tiny bit faster.