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Review: 'Things Heard & Seen' is Haunted by Shortfalls

by Megan Kearns
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Apr 30, 2021
James Norton and Amanda Seyfried in 'Things Heard & Seen'
James Norton and Amanda Seyfried in 'Things Heard & Seen'  (Source:Netflix / Anna Kooris)

Ghosts in haunted house films often have unfinished business, avenging injustices or punishing transgressors. But, as "Things Seen & Heard" conveys, sometimes the most terrifying elements don't come from supernatural forces but lurk within the people we know.

Written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the haunted house horror film stars Amanda Seyfried and James Norton. It is based on the novel "All Things Cease to Appear" by Elizabeth Brundage.

The film is set in 1980, when a couple, Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) and George (James Norton), and their young daughter, Franny, move from Manhattan to upstate New York into a late 1800s farmhouse. Catherine sacrifices her career in art restoration and her cosmopolitan life for George's new job as an art history professor at a small-town college. After strange occurrences, Catherine believes their house is haunted. As the plot unfolds, menacing secrets surface about the previous owners of the house and her husband George, causing their marriage to unravel.

The film hits many familiar beats: Items move on their own, lights flicker, there are strange smells and eerie whispers, a piano plays by itself, research is conducted about the former inhabitants of the house, there's a séance, and there are ominous warnings. George doesn't see these occur. He gets irritated that Franny's frightened screams awaken him and that she sleeps in their bed. Catherine blames the house, but he disbelieves her. The film is reminiscent of Robert Zemeckis's "What Lies Beneath," another haunted house film involving a troubled marriage.

Catherine tells George she feels isolated in the house, yet we don't feel her isolation. She's "conflicted" about her life, and she suffers from an eating disorder. Thankfully, she has several allies: Two young, kind brothers (Alex Neustaedter and Jack Gore) who do yard work and babysit Franny; her friend Justine (Rhea Seehorn), a professor and George's colleague; their realtor (Karen Allen, always a treat to see in a film); and George's boss, Floyd (F. Murray Abraham), who frequently discusses the afterlife and believes Catherine about a ghost in the house. While Seyfried gives a solid performance, "Things Heard & Seen" mostly wastes its talented cast.

Horror Film "Things Heard & Seen" Follows an Unraveling Marriage but Doesn't Break New Ground

The cinematography in haunted house films should utilize space effectively. While unnecessary quick zooms litter the film, a few scenes feature good visuals. The camera shows Franny's point of view, shrouded under a blanket; peering through, she sees a strange woman in her room. An overhead shot of a séance through a fisheye lens feels voyeuristic. A wide shot shows the entire kitchen with a knife on the floor directly below Catherine in the frame, a visual foreshadowing of treacherous danger.

George initially seems nice and friendly, perhaps even something of a milquetoast. We begin to witness his duplicity when he begins an affair with cynical college student Willis (Natalia Dyer, who's great in "Yes, God, Yes"). George's control, manipulations, and abuse escalate. He shoves Catherine during a fight. He rips the phone off the wall to prevent Catherine from making a call. A misogyny commentary emerges. Catherine says George always gets what he wants. Willis talks about how con men get acquitted "because that's the way the world works for men."

In another example of control fused with homophobia, George tells Catherine not to be friends with Justine, who's grown suspicious of George. He fabricates a rumor that she's a lesbian "obsessed" with Catherine, accusing her of causing a rift between them. At Thanksgiving, George's father makes disgustingly homophobic remarks about George's deceased cousin, a gay artist. Catherine is aghast, rebuking his horrible comments. Here, queer inclusivity vs. homophobia bolsters the film's dichotomy between good and evil.

While eerie moments emerge, "Things Heard & Seen" remains mediocre and lacks tension. It also lacks confidence and subtlety. The film conveys a commendable message about misogyny: How abusive, manipulative men elude repercussions. Unfortunately, the film doesn't break new ground or tell its story in a particularly compelling or unique way.

"Things Heard & Seen" is now available on Netflix.

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