Men deceive and ghosts fail to haunt in Things Heard & Seen, a half-told story about a haunted house and the trappings of a toxic marriage.
The latest effort from Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini presents itself as a horror, but chews through its 120-minute runtime with barely a scare in sight. Set in 1980s New York, Things Heard & Seen stars the recently Oscar-nominated Amanda Seyfried as Catherine, an artist who sacrifices her life in the city for a rural relocation with her controlling husband, George (James Norton). George is a charming, arrogant, and manipulative academic, whose facade unravels as the couple fail to settle in their new surroundings.
The film finds some merit in its characters and the sometimes-compelling tensions that arise between them, harnessed by convincing turns from Norton and Seyfried. For the most part, though, its mystery disappoints—and with a carousel of narrative dead ends and a perplexing final act, it leaves the viewer wanting more in the worst possible way.
The first act is largely (and depressingly) by-the-books, wearing overdone horror conventions proudly like old, rusting rings you stole from your grandma’s jewellery box. Catherine and George move into a probably-haunted house in the backend of absolutely nowhere. The estate agent informs us that the property is from the 1800s; Catherine questions the presence of an antique piano. They have a young daughter who’s spooked by a rocking chair; their neighbours are suspicious. Berman and Pulcini are singing from a song sheet we all know by heart. In their defence, they’re not working with their own imaginations, but are confined to adapting Elizabeth Brundage’s novel, All Things Cease to Appear. But still, the conventions themselves aren’t the whole problem, and could have been made interesting with better execution.
After all, tropes become tropes for a reason: in horror, when done well, they have us cowering behind pillows. Their use only becomes unforgivable when, as in this film, the writing and directing both fail to make any of these narrative beats frightening. Instead, they’re simply tired: the supernatural elements throughout are blatant and overt to a point of dampening any mystery that the script is trying to cling onto. And while those long tracking shots were presumably meant to offer the film a portion of flair that its screenplay cannot, they also painfully highlight the moments where Berman and Pulcini back themselves into stylistic corners. Sequences are over-edited, over-thought, and ultimately stripped of any tension or surprise—any last-ditch scares this story may have possessed were sucked from the final product in the editing room.
It truly is a shame, because both Seyfried and Norton do their absolute best to thrust some life into this limp horror. They are at their best when apart, shading careful detail into the inner workings of their characters’ psyches, and eventually building a dramatic dynamic that pulls us through the narrative with at least some conviction. A horror that fails to sustain any genuine terror should be far more boring than Things Heard & Seen manages to be, but Norton commits to his character’s enigma, and we channel our unease through Seyfried’s empathetic performance. The pair just about keep alive the promise that the film might, at some point, turn into something more.
Seyfried’s work is regrettably betrayed, however, by the poorly written character she’s playing: Catherine has little personality outside her relation to uninteresting plot details and her husband’s toxic behaviour. Character details—Catherine’s struggles with bulimia, for example—are wrestled into the narrative with little sincerity or thought, and our protagonist ends up leaving barely a shred of agency on the film’s final print. As a result, even the film’s underlying gender politics appear shallow and underworked.
Ultimately, Things Heard & Seen only manages to evoke angst in its portrayal of a crumbling, abusive marriage, and never manages to cohesively bind this with the tedious plottings of its haunted house. Full commitment to the former may have produced a seriously compelling bit of cinema, but by its derailed conclusion the film has ultimately failed to land in either area. When Berman and Pulcini forget about the ghosts and try to tell us a story about humans, Things Heard & Seen threatens to actually become engrossing. But we can’t have that, and so their commitment to pursuing the script’s weakest components makes sure that this threat never comes to fruition.
With performances as good as Seyfried and Norton’s, Things Heard & Seen should have left a lasting impression. But Berman and Pulcini appear out of their depth writing horror, and end up wasting any potential character intrigue on a plot that is devoid of mystery and fright.
Words by Ben Faulkner
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