Things Heard and Seen movie review: Amanda Seyfried's horror has scant moments of pure terror

As it unfolds, Things Heard and Seen becomes more a story of marriage than of ghosts and spirits, shattering the illusion of a life two people have built together to reveal the imperceptible horrors buried underneath.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe April 30, 2021 14:03:10 IST

2/5

A marriage unravelling in sinister ways, sparse instances of horror staples like strange occurrences and mysterious voices, and the cord that connects this world to the afterlife are elements that feel deliberately clumped together in Things Heard and Seen, a rather dispassionate ghost story from the husband-wife duo, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman.

In the adaptation of Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 novel, All Things Cease to Appear, Academy Award-nominated actor Amanda Seyfried and James Norton (of Happy Valley and Little Women) play Catherine and George Claire, who move from the bustle of Manhattan to a bucolic town in Hudson Valley with their daughter, Franny. On getting his doctorate in art history from Columbia University, George is offered a post upstate as a professor at the provincial Saginaw College. Catherine, on the other hand, gives up her job as an art restorer, a pretty good one at that, to make this move, uncertain about what the seemingly idyllic life would mean for her family.

As is the case with horror movies, the Claires move into a haunted house but the only scary bit is Catherine’s unfazed acceptance that her home is inhabited by ghosts. Pulcini and Berman refuse to play into the generic tropes of jerky movements and ominous music to make an otherworldly presence known. Instead, their protagonist Catherine, derives ‘comfort’ from the friendly spirit of a woman – who she believes was the first owner of the house – and clings to one of her possessions like a talisman as her marriage threatens to collapse.

Things Heard and Seen movie review Amanda Seyfrieds horror has scant moments of pure terror

Amanda Seyfried in Things Heard and Seen. Image via Twitter

The couple soon settles into their new life and Catherine occupies her time with restoring their dilapidated home which nonetheless has “good bones” with the help of brothers, Eddie (Alex Neustaedter) and Cole (Jack Gore) Lucks, who were the most recent residents of the house until their father murdered their mother and then killed himself. Catherine invites them into her home, unaware of this dark past, or of George withholding this knowledge from her. Meanwhile, he falls into the rhythms of his new job with amazing ease, a glib and effortless charm has him quickly surrounded by a following of female students. He also strikes up a sordid affair with a local girl, Willis (Natalie Dyer), that fizzles out before it can actually sparkle.

What acts as the anchor holding together the supernatural with the banality of every day is the philosophy of the 18th century Swedish theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg, to whom we are introduced as somewhat a point of obsession of the chair of George’s department, Floyd DeBeers (F Murray Abraham). In this neck of the woods, he tells George, there are a lot of Swedenborg followers to be found who believe death to be something divine.

Set in 1980, this evident neo-noir Goth backdrop of the story could have indeed assumed a character of its own, except that it is taken over by a narrative in which largely nothing happens that is remotely frightening.

For a story about a haunted house, which was a sight of terrible tragedy, the ghosts are oddly tame, they are not here to scare, they have lingered around to protect.

In fact, Floyd and Catherine strike up an instant friendship when she mentions a presence in the house, and he immediately suggests they hold a séance there. Channelising his Swedenborgian beliefs, he proceeds to talk about guardian angels, who help good people and evil spirits who fester in homes where there is human evil present. The message is a noble one, that it is up to humans to choose whether to invite good or evil energies into their homes, but laid into a screenplay that refuses to draw you in, the moral science is unsurprisingly lackluster.

What pulls focus is the almost cultish enjoyment in living in a house with spirits. Floyd's wife tells Catherine, “We embrace inhabited houses as a blessing. Portals between the two realms with guides to shepherd us once our own time comes.”

Things Heard and Seen movie review Amanda Seyfrieds horror has scant moments of pure terror

A still from Things Heard and Seen. Image via Twitter

For the director duo, following its 2003 hit, American Splendor, few other works have inspired an identical excitement from viewers, with this latest attempt at horror becoming a work that fails to play into the indie-gothic genre to its fullest.

But even as the film misses its mark as a horror thriller, it compensates for that in its portrayal of the downfall of Catherine and George’s relationship. Catherine finds another confidante in Justine Sokolov (Rhea Seehorn), George’s colleague who recognises him for what he really is, and to whom Catherine confesses her misgivings about the man she married. Soon enough, as George’s infidelity, lies about his doctoral dissertation, and his work as an artist threaten to surface, the veneer of the good-looking professor is stripped off to reveal a malevolent entity filled with evil. Consequently, darkness closes in on him. When at first, he refused to believe Catherine’s claims about the house being haunted, now, he reaches out not to the good, but the evil spirit residing within its walls.

This erosion of George’s superficial love and compassion, and his descent into a completely manipulative and murderous monster is achieved well by Norton, who does a splendid job of transforming from a happy and respectful man into a repulsive and resentful schemer. For her part, Seyfried gives an adequate performance as a scared wife and protective mother but her Catherine appears to have adjusted rather too well to the presence of ghosts in her house than to actual human beings and the town to which she has so unwillingly moved.

As it unfolds, Things Heard and Seen becomes more a story of marriage than of ghosts and spirits, shattering the illusion of a life two people have built together to reveal the imperceptible horrors buried underneath.

Things Heard and Seen is streaming on Netflix.

Rating: **

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