Movie Review: 'Things Heard & Seen'
Amanda Seyfried stars in a rare smart haunted house movie from the directors of American Splendor.
I have a reputation, via the Everyone’s A Critic Movie Review Podcast, for being hard on haunted house movies. Indeed, I’ve trashed most of them. Whether it’s The Conjuring franchise and its associated films or just the random September/October studio detritus, made to capitalize on the ravenous horror fandom, I’ve not been impressed with Hollywood’s ghost stories. It’s not a particular bias ghosts ghosts. Rather, it’s an issue with overused tropes, vague motivations, and screenwriting shortcuts that have put me off of Hollywood’s over-familiar ghost formula.
Thus, I can easily explain my reluctance to look at the new movie, Things Heard & Seen. Despite starring Academy Award nominee Amanda Seyfried, Things Heard & Seen struck me, just from the description of the plot, as another Hollywood haunted house movie. Well, despite being a critic, I actually love to be wrong. When I create a preconception of a movie, I’m never more happy to be wrong and to be surprised. Things Heard & Seen surprised me over and over again with it’s sharp manipulation of typical haunted house tropes.
Things Heard & Seen stars Amanda Seyfried as Catherine, a young art school grad turned wife and mother. Catherine’s husband, George (James Norton), is becoming a professor and has recently accepted a position at a small college in upstate New York. This will mean that Catherine will have to give up her dream job, restoring works of art in New York City, in favor of moving to an ancient farm home to support George in his new career. The two met at Art School and shared a love of art until George suddenly became more interested in writing and teaching.
Naturally, their new home has a serious back story, one that their realtor, Mare (Karen Allen), shares with George but not with Catherine. George urges Kate to keep it to herself so as not to worry Catherine. Since her pregnancy, Catherine has been losing weight to a worrisome degree, according to George, and he’s concerned that the added stress of a home where multiple people have been murdered might cause undue stress. Unfortunately for George, the house doesn’t agree to hiding it’s backstory.
Not long after the family has moved in, the ghostly presence inside the house makes itself known, first to daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger), and then to Catherine who becomes interested in researching the home. Meanwhile, George is loving life as a beloved young, handsome professor. Students love George and he loves being adored. That’s sort of how he comes to meet Willis (Natalia Dyer, Stranger Things). When he sees her pick up a book about an artist he’s taught about, Caravaggio, he uses it as a way to introduce himself and lay on the charm.
If you’re getting the sense of something sinister about George, go with your gut. I’m not going to spoil anything, the movie is so good, I couldn’t possibly dream of ruining it. Things Seen & Heard was adapted from a novel by Elizabeth Brundage called All Things Cease to Appear and was adapted by the writing and directing duo of Robert Pulcini and Sherry Springer Berman. Watching Things Seen & Heard, I began to think that Pulcini and Berman had been listening to my many complaints about ghost movies as they unfolded a smart story, still familiar from other haunted house movies, but with ghosts that are motivated and not used for simplistic jump scares.
The ghosts of Things Heard & Seen are employed to underline and further the bigger emotional stakes of the plot rather than as functional elements, those intended for yelling BOO and getting a brief and forgettable spike in your heart rate. The ghosts aren’t the stars here, Amanda Seyfried and James Norton are fully in the lead and they are terrific, beginning to end in Things Seen and Heard. At its heart, Things Seen and Heard is a story about a perilous marriage rather than a perilous haunting and that’s what makes the movie so very watchable, exciting and fun.
Things Heard & Seen is superbly directed and acted with commitment and charm. The plot is sticky and fun to watch untangle. Then there are the extraordinary supporting players. I’ve already briefly mentioned the remarkable Karen Allen as the realtor but there is also Michael O’Keefe as Allen’s husband and the local sheriff, and Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as George’s eccentric boss, a character who comes in handy for delivering charming and necessary exposition. If you’re going to employ a character to embody a plot point, you could do far worse than Abraham who is just terrific here.
My favorite supporting player however is Rhea Seehorn as Justine. Seehorn plays Justine with the perfect air of superior intelligence and motherly protectiveness. She takes to Catherine quickly while suspecting George instantly and the dynamic between these characters is fantastic. Scenes between Seehorn and Norton crackle with the live wire energy of two people who see right through each other, one of them just happens to be smarter than the other. I will leave you to discover who’s who.
Things Heard & Seen debuted on Netflix on April 29th, 2021.