2021’s going to really have to work to top this one
Look a little deeper at just about any decent haunted-house movie, and you’ll almost always see a story about people who feel trapped by some larger aspect of their lives. Horror-movie protagonists dealing with an evil doll can at least try to get rid of it; slasher victims can at least try to run away from the danger. And people being threatened by something they don’t understand, whether it’s a curse or a creature, can always investigate and try to come to terms with the unknown. But a house represents a commitment, a sunk cost that’s extremely difficult to walk away from. In a movie like Netflix’s baffling new horror-drama Things Heard & Seen, the haunted house is a metaphor as much as a horror device, a symbol of a place that should be a warm, protective home but isn’t, and an emblem of a commitment that’s difficult to escape. And as a metaphor, it’s the most consistent and compelling thing in a bizarrely confused movie.
Amanda Seyfried and The Nevers’ James Norton star as Catherine and George Claire, a married couple raising a 4-year-old daughter, Franny, in 1980 Manhattan. Catherine has a satisfying job as an expert art restorer, but when George announces to their friends that he’s completed his dissertation and has been offered a teaching job at a private college in upstate New York, she drops her career meekly, without complaint, telling a close friend that she owes George her support. There’s clearly something wrong in Catherine’s life, given that she’s starving herself and forcing herself to vomit up what food she does eat, and even early on, she flinches as, for instance, George picks out their new home in the tiny town of Chosen, pressuring her when she shows even token resistance.
It turns out that she’s right to be unnerved by his insistence on the house: The place has seen some horrors, and there’s an active supernatural presence there. The slow-burn ghost story that follows starts out according to the usual haunted-house rules, at least in most respects: Electric lights flicker, Franny sees a mysterious female figure in her room, objects around the house move without being touched, and so forth. But one thing that’s immediately unusual in Things Heard & Seen is that Catherine doesn’t seem particularly unnerved by the apparition or the effects. She immediately starts to sympathize with the household ghost, and when George’s boss Floyd (F. Murray Abraham, always enjoyable) gives her his warm and supportive theories on spiritualism, she’s immediately in favor of a seance — with George, a disdainful cynic, distinctly not invited.
Things Heard & Seen, based on Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 novel All Things Cease to Appear, spends most of its runtime building an unconventional ghost story out of an entirely conventional relationship drama. Catherine and George’s marriage looks an awful lot like the similarly fraying relationship in Sean Durkin’s The Nest, with a fair percentage of The Talented Mister Ripley sprinkled in. He’s a liar and a cheat who blames his choices on her behavior. Meanwhile, she’s gaslighting him about her eating disorder, and concealing how miserable she is while also finding reasons to be passive-aggressively unkind to him. The otherworldly force in the house is drawn to their conflict and their resentments — or possibly is feeding it? That’s one of the things that’s manifestly unclear right up to the abrupt, baffling ending.
The way the narrative falls apart is a particular shame, since for much of its run, the film is a compelling melodrama, an “elevated horror” story that limits the cheap shocks and jump scares, and replaces them with its own unusual rules for the supernatural. As one visitor tells Catherine, evil spirits are only drawn to evil people, which means unless she’s harboring evil herself, the ghost that’s trying to make contact with her is a kind and benevolent one. In this particular fantasy, ghosts are specifically drawn toward people who mirror them in some ways, and Catherine’s ghost may be responding to her troubled marriage.
The story heads in some fairly over-the-top directions as the unexpected reveals pile up, but by fully blending a supernatural horror story with a dreary marital drama, writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor, The Nanny Diaries) kick some fresh energy into both genres, and steer them away from the usual predictable structures. As gripping as haunted-house movies like His House, The Conjuring, Stir of Echoes, and even the OG Poltergeist were, and as much as they play with the idea of being bound to a place and fearing it at the same time, they all follow patterns of escalation that mostly amount to “scary ghost keeps getting scarier.” Things Heard & Seen gains considerably just by subverting that expectation.
But the martial drama doesn’t go as far off the familiar roads, in part because Berman and Pulcini never fully connect the way Catherine feels tied to the house, and the way she feels tied to her floundering marriage. Seyfried gives her some presence and appeal, but she never has much agency as a character. Catherine starts off beaten down by factors that are never fully explained: Is her eating disorder meant as a clue to the stress she’s been under in her relationship, or is it meant to excuse her lack of energy and focus? Are there concrete reasons she’s afraid to resist George, or does her obedience come from her family history or personality? Who is she, really? As possible answers do start to come into focus, and as she learns more about who George really is, she takes less and less action, withdrawing into a snide, petulant passivity that isn’t compelling in a protagonist, and that only serves the narrative by drawing it out longer so George can get away with even more.
And then there’s the laughable final sequence, which not only assumes the audience has utterly internalized the film’s invented rules for the supernatural, but can intuit many more of them as well. Further, it assumes that they’re going to be willing to go along with ridiculous and unjustified events, as long as they feel at least somewhat like justice. The ending is a bold play in a movie full of bold plays, but it seems designed more to whip up discussion than to draw the narrative together, or to give viewers either a horror-movie catharsis or a marriage-drama resolution. Haunted-house movies are usually about people stuck in one place, and lacking any good options for getting away. Things Heard & Seen continues that trend, and for much of its runtime, it makes Catherine’s inability to escape into a memorable conundrum. But the movie’s eventual collapse is inescapable as well, and when it goes down, it takes all of the movie’s accumulated goodwill with it.
Things Heard & Seen is now streaming on Netflix.