Arguments about the annoying way you squeeze the toothpaste tube meet haunted-house apparitions in Netflix’s Things Heard and Seen, an amalgamation of horror-thrillers and marital-strife domestic dramas. Amanda Seyfried and James Norton headline the adaptation of Elizabeth Brundage’s novel All Things Cease to Appear, playing the troubled couple dealing with otherworldly specters ripping the lids off the cans of worms that comprise their troubled marriage. The movie is from directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who have made many films together, but haven’t seen one enjoy the acclaim of their 2003 feature debut, American Splendor (which earned them a best screenplay Oscar nom). Will Things Heard and Seen maybe be the one to change that?
The Gist: The movie opens with an interesting scene then soon flashes back to a mundane scene so it doesn’t open with that mundane scene. Wouldn’t want to open on a mundane scene! People might switch over to HBO Max and watch something else! Here’s the interesting scene: WINTER, 1980, when George (Norton) pulls into the garage and blood drips down from the floorboards of the house onto his car. The mundane scene: THE SPRING BEFORE, when George, Catherine (Seyfried) and their four-year-old daughter Frannie (Ana Sophia Heger) say goodbye to New York City and head up the Hudson River a ways to live in a 160-odd-year-old farmhouse in the teensy burg of Chosen. He just landed a gig as an art history prof at a small college up there. Cath isn’t big on the move, because it means giving up her art-restoration career, and being away from everyone they know, and living near a town with a name that could’ve been something beige like Springston or Charlesville but instead is named CHOSEN, and moving into a house formerly owned by the Smits, who you’ll note are one letter away from being the Smites.
While George and his 1980 Connecticut privilege-boy haircut are off being objects of female coeds’ admiration, Cath struggles to settle in. She has her painting gear in the barn, but she’s often isolated and dealing with whatever the hell is going on inside the house — flickering lights, radios that turn on by themselves, something spooking poor Frannie awake every night, etc. Notably, George is a skeptic and Cath is a believer in woo-woo; he’s a cad from a family of moneyed snob-assholes and she’s a thoughtful and sensitive woman struggling with an eating disorder.
So you’ve got some complex characters there, and several supporting folk play into the plot: Eddy (Alex Neustaedter) and Cole (Jack Gore) are the local teenage orphans helping the family take care of the property. Willis (Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things) is the local horse stable girl who, against all logic, succumbs to George’s flirty smarm. Floyd (F. Murray Abraham) is George’s local dept. head, who happens to be way into seances and crap, which might come in handy if Cath wants to chat with any incorporealities in the house. Justine (Rhea Seehorn) is the local adjunct weaving instructor who introduces herself to George by saying, “Hi, am the adjunct weaving instructor,” and becomes a much-needed friend to Cath. George and Cath start quarreling and unhappiness prevails, but why exactly does supernatural weirdness in the house intensify whenever he acts like a total shitbag? Are the ghosts on her side? THE PLOT SHALL NOT BE SPOILT.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: You can’t have an isolated haunted house in this era of clogs and wood-paneled station wagons and not evoke the original 1979 The Amityville Horror. Things Heard and Seen doesn’t quite take the typical scary-house route though; it exists somewhere between Amityville’s trad scaries and the terrifying-but-not-necessarily-malevolent ghosts of Crimson Peak.
Performance Worth Watching: Seyfried is charismatic in the face of Norton’s boilerplate loathsome smarm, but the material doesn’t give her much to work with.
Memorable Dialogue: Floyd visits George and Cath’s house for the first time and tunes right into the phantasmic wavelength: “We’re not alone, are we? She doesn’t mean any harm,” he says of the spirit.
Sex and Skin: All nookie is off screen.
Our Take: Things Heard and Seen is a haunted house movie in which the protagonist does not walk… very… slowly… through… the house… never… turning… on… any… lights… and instead is a movie in which Seyfried walks at a normal pace through the house, flipping light switches on like any normal person does when ethereal post-life people make their presence known. I applaud such sensible action in a genre so frequently bazookaed with the same old contrivances.
Alas, Seyfried walking through the house at a normal speed is the movie’s strongest component. It draws George as a toxically male upper-cruster, a generic superiority-complex Caucasian who’s the fulcrum of the story, which sketches our sympathetic protag in Cath as a collection of basic character traits looking for a sturdy place to stand. She’s an artist, a mother, a believer-in-ghosts, and she’s stigmatized by her husband for her anorexia, but who is she exactly, besides a puppet of the plot? This question goes unanswered, and that’s why we shrug our way through many dramatic third-act developments, concerned only because we good humans don’t want to see other humans suffer needlessly, not because we really know or love this character.
Like the bevy of supporting characters, Cath’s little more than a gear in the big-plot machine — a big-plot machine with a predictable, underwhelming climax that’s muddled and underwhelming in its supernatural twistiness. The movie attempts to be a feminist fable of sorts, a ghost story with a point beyond the creepy atmosphere and jump scares, but it never churns up much beneath the surface. As a character piece, it’s the movie equivalent of a pageturner novel, and about as deep as an ant’s foot bath.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Things Heard and Seen is something you’ll hear and see, but won’t remember.
Originally published at https://decider.com/2021/04/29/things-seen-and-heard-on-netflix-stream-it-or-skip-it/ on .