Things Heard & Seen
Directed by Shari Springer and Robert Pulcin
Streaming on Netflix
Netflix’s Things Heard & Seen wants to be The Shining set in a farmhouse, it wants to be The Amityville Horror set in the Hudson Valley, it wants to be The Conjuring with art school pretensions. It wants to be many things and for a good chunk of its running time it’s okay, it’s enjoyable. It’s good. It may not be the high art of The Shining or the campiness of The Amityville Horror or the stomach lining ruining stress of The Conjuring. But the mystery, the cinematography, and the performances, especially Amanda Seyfried, make it compelling. And then the last act happens, and everything goes sideways and it’s just bad, bad, bad, bad.
Ms. Seyfried and James Norton are Catherine and George Claire, a young Manhattan couple with a young daughter and dark secrets. He’s packing up the family to move to the Hudson Valley where he has a job as a professor of art history at a small college. They move into a large farmhouse, one of those farmhouses that should have a giant sign outside, ‘be aware, there be ghosts and family tragedies here’.
One of the admirable things that Things Heard & Seen does is parallel the supernatural happenings in the house with Catherine discovering more and more about the man she’s married to, the father of her daughter. As she finds things around the house from its past, sheet music, a family bible, a ring, she also discovers how much she’s been lied to and how much she’s been gaslit by the man she trusted. While not completely original, see The Shining or The Amityville Horror or Oculus or The Haunting of Hill House, using the haunting as a metaphor for a disintegrating marriage is always awesome. What is kind of new here is the wife wakes up to the sham her marriage is.
Unfortunately, some of the first signs the film might be in trouble is how little some of the house’s mysteries matter to the movie. Some are dropped immediately after being introduced, some are dropped halfway through the movie. Some lead down a rabbit hole just to never be mentioned again. Another problem is how un-scary the entire thing is. A good gothic horror should have more than a couple of jump scares. A good gothic horror should shred your stomach lining with stress. The Conjuring, I’m looking in your direction. So, yeah. We have a horror movie with very little tension, very little scary, and very little horror.
So, what makes Things Heard & Seen worth watching? Well, until that last act? Watching this marriage disintegrate is very engrossing. I mean, it’s not The Shining’s marriage-as-survival-horror, but it does make a marriage flying off the rails pretty darned watchable. A large part of the credit goes to the performances. James Norton never tries to make George anything but unlikable, Amanda Seyfried transforms Claire from fragile and broken and vulnerable to steely eyed and iron spined as she tries to separate truth from lies.
Also, Things Heard & Seen looks all kinds of amazing when it’s outside. Many of the rooms may feel like closed in, claustrophobic, but when the camera moves outside everything is eye-candy. The overcast skies add to the claustrophobia of the movie, they are always grey, the clouds are always low. The fall colours pop, the cracked paint hints at stories untold. Larry Smith’s photography is wonderful and every single time this movie moved outside it took my breath away.
And then there’s the last act. It takes a special kind of bad ending to wreck an entire film viewing experience, like, so awful that you’re amazed that the people cutting the cheques didn’t call the bank to stop payment. So awful that people will talking about it for years and not in the ‘what was that about?’ good way. Oh, no. This will be talked about in the ‘what were they thinking?’ way. Things Heard & Seen was never going to be a great film, it was always going to be at best good, an enjoyable way to waste away a couple of hours. Being a horror film with so little horror was always going to be a problem, but goodness gracious, that ending. Oh, my. Things Heard & Seen doesn’t even make the list of things to have on while surfing your phone.