Under Its Arty Gloss, 'Things Heard & Seen' Has No New Gothic Tricks | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

On Screen » Movie+TV Reviews

Under Its Arty Gloss, 'Things Heard & Seen' Has No New Gothic Tricks


Published May 12, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

Malice Domestic Norton and Seyfried play a couple whose marriage  deteriorates in their creepy new home in this attempt at an arty scare flick. - COURTESY OF ANNA KOORIS/NETFLIX
  • Courtesy Of Anna Kooris/Netflix
  • Malice Domestic Norton and Seyfried play a couple whose marriage deteriorates in their creepy new home in this attempt at an arty scare flick.

Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. Certain people have a bottomless appetite for haunted-house stories, and Netflix knows I'm one of them. But what really convinced me to watch the streaming service's latest glossy gothic was that its opening credits feature a slideshow of Hudson River School paintings, including Thomas Cole's four-part allegory The Voyage of Life.

I saw Cole's haunting series when I was a child at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y., and it shaped my view of life and death alike. At the time, my family were Manhattan transplants living in a remote, ramshackle farmhouse in upstate New York — much like the family in this movie, based on Elizabeth Brundage's novel All Things Cease to Appear.

The deal

In 1980, George and Catherine Claire (James Norton and Amanda Seyfried) are an arty couple living happily in New York City with their young daughter, Franny (Ana Sophia Heger). Then George takes a job teaching at a liberal arts college upstate and persuades Catherine to leave her art restoration job. He finds his family the perfect historic house, complete with an adjacent dairy.

But Catherine is listless in the sticks, George is increasingly distant, and things happen at night that terrify Franny. Catherine researches the house's dark history and finds a strange ring that appears to be linked to supernatural manifestations, both benign and terrifying. She seeks guidance in the work of 18th-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, a favorite of spiritualists for his theories about the presence of ghosts in the material world, and joins some of George's campus colleagues in a séance. But what she learns about her house — and her husband — could be more than she bargained for.

Will you like it?

For the first 40 minutes or so, I had high hopes for Things Heard & Seen. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team behind American Splendor, the movie has a prestige-film feel. The production design of the Claires' house is compellingly vintage and grubby. Norton and Seyfried are convincing as a "perfect" couple whose relationship is actually rife with lies. (Catherine hides an eating disorder from George; he hides an affair.) And, perhaps most importantly, the period details encourage us to make subliminal connections with that other movie about an unhappy couple holed up in the country: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

That's a bad idea, though, because The Shining this is not. Things Heard & Seen isn't especially scary; the main recipient of the house's "horror" is poor Franny, who has almost no dialogue or screen time. She stays docilely in the background while her parents act out a psychodrama that feels increasingly like a Lifetime thriller.

The further we get into the film's 121 minutes, the clearer it is that these characters have no hidden depths. Catherine is passive and childlike, only fitfully trying to take her fate into her own hands. (Even Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby showed a lot more gumption.) As for George, whose dishonest twitchiness is initially amusing, he turns out to be the most boilerplate kind of sociopath.

Rather than the story of a haunted marriage, the movie becomes a lurid tale of spousal malfeasance and gaslighting with some ghosts mixed in. Subplots feel underdeveloped; supporting actors (including F. Murray Abraham, Karen Allen and Rhea Seehorn) feel wasted. As for the art and literary references — what are they even doing there?

If nothing else, at least now I've seen a movie featuring a climactic re-creation of Cole's "Manhood" painting, which has always riveted me with its depiction of maturity as a guy sailing a boat over a foaming cascade with his hands clasped in desperate prayer. (As George points out to his students, analyzing the painting, it's never wise to take your hands off the tiller.) Things Heard & Seen almost redeems itself with its pop-surrealist ending, but it's too little, too late. There are better things to hear and see.

If you like this, try...

We Are Still Here (2015; Tubi, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, rentable): Hoping to heal from a loss, a couple relocates to a historic New England home in this under-seen indie horror film, which makes more original (and scary) use of the theme of a dwelling with a legacy of evil.

"The Haunting of Bly Manor" (nine episodes, 2020; Netflix): The latest in Netflix's popular "Haunting" series is a riff on "The Turn of the Screw" set in the 1980s. It's a mixed bag and overlong, but a few episodes are brilliant — and don't miss the epilogue set in Vermont!

The Hare (2021 novel by Melanie Finn): Yes, a book, and not even a horror book. But there's a lot of gothic in this novel by a Vermonter, in which a patrician wastrel transplants his naïve young girlfriend and their child to an isolated farmhouse in the Northeast Kingdom. He weaves a web of lies; she's all too willing to believe, until she isn't. Finn digs deep into the feminist themes that Things Heard & Seen uses as window dressing.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Things Heard & Seen"