The haunted house is a comfortable place to live for those who find allies in the dark. If you’re brave enough to stare in the face of burst bulbs and ominous scents, you might find comfort in those who linger in wood panels. Things Heard & Seen sends a young family to one such home with a sordid history, one full up with death yet tries its best to prevent more.
Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) is a dutiful wife. Though opportunities are available to her, she pushes them aside to support her husband, George (James Norton). He has taken a position at a college upstate. Thus, Catherine decides it’s her turn to sacrifice for his career, so she packs up their young daughter to relocate to a large house in the country. Immediately upon their arrival, Catherine senses the house is harboring secrets, but George insists that’s “silly.” As George starts to spend more time on his life outside the home, Catherine feels more and more isolated, finding refuge in George’s colleagues, who share her beliefs in the supernatural. George pulls farther and farther away from his wife and in doing so, sheds his outer façade, leaving Catherine and her new allies to decipher the home’s mysteries while they still have the luxury.
Things Heard & Seen is a horror story by way of a woman trudged upon. Catherine’s journey involves startling thuds and creepy maturations, yet it’s more welcoming than one might expect. The story is of Catherine wasting away in the arms of a man unwilling to be told where he belongs. It’s one of a woman who finds allyship in those like her, and who finds feelings of protection in the embrace of well-meaning apparitions.
The film is written and directed by adaption-tackling duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor, The Nanny Diaries), and is based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear, by Elizabeth Brundage. What they’ve created is a sense of overwhelming comfort strewn throughout a terror-laden story. The filmmakers and their team have used wardrobe, like long sweaters and thick denim, wooden accents, and warm metallics to create an enveloping sense of coziness that sucks you into the world of the tale. It maroons you to the isolated farmhouse, making the freedom of the city feel impossibly far away. Where it struggles is in the push-and-pull over who should feel welcomed where. Catherine adamantly feels like a stranger in a strange land who has left her life behind at the whims of her husband, while George is happily donning tweed blazers and romancing students and faculty members alike. But Catherine is much more welcome by the spiritual inhabitants of the area, finding herself embraced by townspeople while the neighborhood tries to spit George back out.
Things Heard & Seen is not at all immune from the stumbles typical in novel adaptations. There are more plot threads than it is interested in or able to explore fulsomely. While it looks like mother!, it’s nowhere near as frantic, and, instead, glides along a muddled story that only has time to indict George.
Still, Seyfried’s subtle performance is dazzling, playing meek and scared while turning up loud emotion when it’s called for. Norton’s repugnant smile makes for a flawless gross-professor type that sets the tone for audience allegiance from the start. Rhea Seehorn as Justine is an unexpected standout, playing a very different character than her popular role as a frustrated and street-savvy lawyer in Better Call Saul. She falls all the way into the role of an interesting and eccentric academic who is cloaked in loose handmade fabrics and crow’s feet. Her balance of welcoming woman and icy protector end up making her the character with whom the audience sides. It’s a good thing, too, since she takes center stage in the third act.
Though it’s a woman’s story, it’s hard to nail down what Things Seen & Heard is trying to say about gender. There’s an air of women being more likely to buy into spirituality. The spirits protecting Catherine appear to be a string of wives, and Justine attracts Catherine with women’s groups. However, the spirits are brought to light for Catherine via a male professor (F. Murray Abraham) and a book written by a man, and most of her physical protection comes by way of young men. It’s more likely a study of tumultuous marriages oft caused by gender imbalances that inspire an entire town to intervene, leaving George the Gaslighting Husband to be the target of universal ire.
This moody and brooding tale is another in the spirit of “jerk husband and manipulated wife,” adapted from novels that probably beget bathtub reads. In the end, Things Heard & Seen is much more of a warm hug than it is a horror story, but that doesn’t mean it won’t slash you when it gets the opportunity.
Things Heard & Seen debuts on Netflix on April 29.
Header Image Source: Netflix