Movie Curiosities: Things Heard & Seen

I still haven’t completely forgiven Amanda Seyfried, or anyone else who had anything to do with the utterly wretched Gone. That said, I accept that hometown pride is a key reason why I still carry a personal grudge against that movie long after everyone has forgotten it was ever made. Plus, Seyfried is a lovely and talented actor, and I really do want to like her.

So I was perfectly willing to give a fair shake to Things Seen & Heard, a ghost story written/directed/produced by the husband/wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, in which Seyfried stars. And it’s a weird one, folks.

We start out with a bog-standard premise centered on the Claire Family. George Claire (James Norton) got a new job as an art history professor, fresh off of completing his dissertation and securing his doctorate. Thus he picks up his entire family and moves from NYC to the sleepy upstate town of Chosen. It turns out that he picked a haunted house, and hijinks ensue.

Catherine Claire (Seyfried) is an artist who more or less gave up any hopes of career advancement upon getting married and having a child (Franny, played by Ana Sophia Heger). She’s also a bulimic with a long history of eating disorders and pathological obsession with her weight, so yeah, the film goes there. And it’s used as a means of getting gaslit, so the other characters can brush off her paranoid claims as the ramblings of a malnourished brain, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Suffice to say that I’m not especially happy with the film’s approach toward eating disorders.

Franny herself is mostly here to wake up screaming for her parents in the middle of the night, in response to the supernatural hijinks that send her screaming for mommy. Though of course the parents themselves do little to address the root problem, because George would rather grumble and passive-aggressively complain about how he and his wife never get the bed to themselves anymore. Also, it’s really Catherine who should do something about all this, because she’s the one at home all day while George is out at the college making a career and a social life for himself.

As the film unfolds, the marriage becomes increasingly toxic. In fact, George gets to be so sexually frustrated that he takes to welcoming the attractions of his female students and picks up a local girl (Willis, played by Natalia Dyer) to bang on the side. Yet he still has the gall to be jealous of Eddie (Alex Neustaedter), a neighbor whom Catherine hired to help around the house. And that’s not even getting started on all the blatantly immoral and literally criminal bullshit that sticks to George as the film continues.

At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the haunted house. The good news is, there’s an explanation. The bad news is, the explanation is so thin and so late that the filmmakers don’t sell it.

Things finally start to pick up in the back half, when Catherine finally shows some initiative, the ghost story gets some traction, and George keeps degrading into a full-tilt fuckstick. Even so, the ghost story gets bogged down in so much hollow spiritual mumbo-jumbo and a dearth of legit scares. As such, it doesn’t really work as a horror film so much as a family drama about a toxic marriage that just happens to have a flimsy horror hook.

What really makes it work is the cast. This kind of role — the potentially gaslit ingenue whom everyone underestimates until she finds her own strength — is squarely in Amanda Seyfried’s wheelhouse, so of course she does a solid job. But the real secret weapon here is James Norton, here tasked with portraying his character’s gradual unmaking by his own entitled pride and previous sins, all without ever losing sight of what made him such a charming and likeable guy to begin with. It’s disturbingly easy to like the guy, even after the third act comes and we’ve all learned what he’s capable of.

The supporting cast is likewise quite impressive. It’s always a pleasure to see F. Murray Abraham and Karen Allen on the screen. I found Rhea Seehorn and Alex Neustaedter to be instantly sympathetic. Natalia Dyer and Ana Sophia Heger hold their own quite nicely as well.

But then we get to the ending. Of course I have a difficult time discussing the ending without getting into spoilers, but suffice to say that the ending has quite a few uncanny similarities to Promising Young Woman, another ending that I took issue with. In both cases, it felt like the filmmakers were resorting to contrived and woefully thin measures to try and have it both ways (i.e., A shock ending that gave way to a happy ending.). On the one hand, Things has the ghost story fantasy element that provides a lot more leeway for strange and fantastic coincidences to happen. On the other hand, Promising had the “revenge thriller” hook, so it was much better suited to presenting this particular shock factor while also maintaining its status as a feminist picture.

I honestly have no idea what to do with Things Heard & Seen. It’s a ghost story that doesn’t remotely work as a horror story, and it’s like the filmmakers only put the bare minimum of mandated effort to make it work as a horror film. No, it’s clear that this is a ghost story intended to work as a tale about toxic masculinity and abusive marriage. And the pieces don’t quite mesh together, but it’s a frustratingly near miss.

If only the plot didn’t take so long to get moving. If only more had been done and done earlier to suggest that the lingering spirits were hostile and the characters took it more seriously. If only the notion of history repeating itself had been made into a more prominent theme instead of limp hand-waving. I really like what the film was going for, I just wish it had been built into something more than this amorphous whatchamacallit.

Ultimately, I think I respect the film more than I like it. I’m sorry, but I have a very difficult time giving this one a pass while Promising Young Woman is still fresh.

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