Oscar nominee Amanda Seyfried leads mystery horror Things Heard and Seen, streaming on Netflix from this Thursday night. It’s almost impressive how little of its haunted house setup actually pays off, writes Amelia Berry.
The power of a good haunted house story comes from the duality of the domestic sphere as a site of familiar safety and comfort, and of feminine isolation, alienation, and trauma. Like so much of the best horror, the blood and guts get really scary when there’s a bit of allegory to bring them close to home.
Things Heard and Seen, the latest from American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and based on Elizabeth Brundage’s acclaimed novel ‘All Things Cease to Appear’, is certainly a film with a haunted house in it. It’s a film with a lot of haunted house story imagery even—children being sinister, pianos playing by themselves, there’s even a dream about fishing a blinking fetus from a big old sink. It’s almost impressive then how little of that actually pays off in the plot of the film.
The setup is spot on. When slimy self-satisfied George (James Norton) is offered his first professorship, he moves his anxious wife Catherine (recent Academy Award nominee Amanda Seyfried) and their young daughter to an old country house in rural upstate New York.
Catherine’s struggle with bulimia, her Catholicism, and her increasing conviction that their house really is haunted, puts strain on her already troubled marriage. George is hiding something. The locals have a mysterious unspoken connection with the house. It all actually works very well. Seyfried’s performance anchors the film around a kind of Mia Farrow muted dread, James Norton delivers a note-perfect sinister charm, and Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer is equally good as his foil, playing jaded local Willis.
By rights, the rest of the movie should just escalate from here. Hold on though because, maybe two-thirds of the way through the film, bam! The plot arrives, and we flip pretty dramatically from atmospheric horror to melodramatic thriller. At its best, it’s gleefully pulpy—at its worst, downright silly.
With most of the action now taking place around the university and its faculty, the ghosts back home are left to kick around awkwardly, at one point apologising for not being able to help, and later appearing just to let you know that the man who just did an axe murder is “evil”. Thanks, ghosts.
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By the end, Things Heard and Seen seems like a movie singularly uninterested in metaphor or allegory. Threads that feel set up to deliver cathartic character-rich horror end up dropped entirely. Were Catherine’s bulimia or her Catholicism going to come back with a terrible irony at the film’s climax? Did you think that the blinking fetus dream meant anything at all? Nope. Instead, the aspect of the film which feels the most like spooky set dressing—its obsession with 18th Century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg—ends up seeming like maybe its whole point for existing. Good people go to heaven, ghosts are real, bad people go to hell. It doesn’t feel like a point that needs making with so much blood.
All up, there’s half of a very good sinister domestic horror here, and half of a pretty schlocky supernatural thriller. But when neither really sticks the landing, it leaves you wondering whether any of it was really worthwhile at all.