Men lie. That much is clear in Things Heard & Seen, an unsettling, but uneven film from writing and directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Men cheat, they kill, and they manipulate the women around them, all in the name of what they think they deserve.
At first glance, a ghost story that centers around said manipulation and the dark secrets a husband keeps from his wife seems ripe for exploration, but a strong concept can’t save this empty and convoluted thriller. One part Rebecca and one part The Conjuring – but not nearly as effective as either – an uninspired and dichotomous script mars intriguing ideas and admirable performances. While haunting at times, the film ultimately can’t marry the supernatural and the domestic into a satisfying narrative – much less a united one.
Based on Elizabeth Brundage’s novel All Things Cease to Appear, the film follows Catherine (Amanda Seyfried), an artist who moves with her young daughter and her husband, George (James Norton), to rural New York after he lands a teaching gig at a local liberal arts college.
The differences between husband and wife are glaring. George wants to move away from the city, Catherine’s reluctant. She believes in the supernatural, he does not. When both Catherine and her daughter start to see a ghostly woman around their new home, Catherine desperately tries to convince George that something mysterious is going on. But, as the truth surrounding the home and their marriage begins to unfurl, Catherine realizes that perhaps George cannot protect her from the ghost – but maybe the ghost can protect her from George.
Norton holds nothing back as the sniveling, gaslighting husband, and Seyfried is commendable as a woman reckoning with her own abuse, and the abuse of those who have come before her. But despite the efforts of its lead actors, the script leaves them grasping at straws and the film never finds the connection between the haunted house and the equally haunted women who reside there. Instead of a cohesive piece of work, you’re left with two separate movies – an ethereal ghost story and a psychological domestic drama – running in parallel, one pulling ahead for one scene and the other taking charge in the next.
Seyfried shoulders the film’s supernatural elements with a doe-eyed frailty that works fine for the ghost story, but when she’s forced to make the switch to the disappointed, disgusted wife in the domestic drama, the change is jarring. Norton’s affable charm makes him a compelling choice for George, and his performance captures how much of a pathetic mess George is – a strong union of menace, mediocrity and a proclivity for whimpering his way through dialogue work in his favor.
But by the time Catherine and George have their first blowout fight, there’s no catharsis when Catherine screams at George that she gave up everything for him, no “how dare he say that” moment when George berates Catherine over her eating and drinking habits. We already know Catherine feels isolated – she’s explicitly said that numerous times at this point – and we know George is a deplorable prick. The film is fixated on laying everything out on the table in a way that feels at odds with its tone, and like it doesn’t trust its audience to pick up on subtext.
The script’s tendency to tell, not show, detracts from the interiority of the film’s themes and what could have been fine performances. A domestic thriller thrives on the things not said, emotions held close to the chest, paranoia. While many horror movies may share some of those elements, they are generally external experiences filled with jump scares, monsters and ghosts. The film just can’t find common ground between things that go bump in the night and a more realistic terror.
As it becomes clear the house affects George as much as it does Catherine, and Norton is forced to do more heavy lifting with the supernatural elements of the story, his performances falters under the implications of the script. The audience is well aware that George’s toxic charms were steeped in fabrication long before he moved into the house, so the insinuation that some unnatural force compelled him to commit unspeakable crimes feels misguided.
“The house made me do it” narrative is all too familiar in horror movies, but in a story of abuse, it falls flat and makes the film’s final stab at a twisted sense of empowerment feel hollow.
Sammie is a freelance journalist who has written about education, film and culture for publications such as Boston University News Service and Oz Magazine. For more fun insights, you can follow her on twitter @sammie_purcell8