Things Heard & Seen

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Amanda Seyfried in Things Heard & Seen.
Amanda Seyfried in Things Heard & Seen.
Photo: Anna Kooris/Netflix


Things Heard and Seen




3/5 Stars


Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) and George (James Norton) Claire are a married couple with a young daughter, Franny (Ana Sophia Heger), who move from Manhattan to a very old house in a small town in upstate New York when the latter lands a job at a prestigious art college. It soon becomes clear to Franny and Claire that the house holds dark, supernatural secrets, but those secrets may be far less devastating than George's own web of lies that quickly starts to unravel as his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.


Disclaimer: I will, as always, do my best to avoid any actual spoilers in this review, but the real pleasure of this admittedly flawed but compelling film is the ride it takes the audience on by subverting expectations and taking its time before even revealing exactly what kind of story it's telling, so perhaps give it a watch before proceeding with this review. In fact, if you can avoid even Netflix's description of the film, you would probably be better off too.    

Ghost stories - including their subset of haunted house stories - have remained such a vital genre of storytelling for centuries now and with good reason. By playing on the fundamental unknowability of death, ghost stories possess an ability to scare us in a way that horror tales of vampires, werewolves and masked killers simply can't come close to matching – but there is another aspect to the genre that has made it such a perennial (and personal) favourite: ghosts can be used as incredibly powerful metaphors for multiple aspects of the human condition.

Haunted house stories, for example, often use their supernatural elements to comment on domesticity and the often complex, sometimes highly dysfunctional, family dynamics of those who dwell in the house, both past and present. Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House re-imagining is still the most profound example of this, as far as I'm concerned (interestingly, Shirley Jackson's original novel foregoes this theme completely), but the new Netflix original film, Things Heard & Seen, takes a valiant, if not entirely successful, stab at the similar themes.

Based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Things Heard & Seen has been adapted by the writing/directing/ husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and is, in some respects, a very different haunted house film and, in others, a pretty classic representation of the genre. It's not really a horror film, per se, but even if it is more The Haunting of Bly Manor than Hill House – and actually, it is quite a lot like Bly Manor – it is still a film driven by its ghosts, and the secrets they have to tell.  

Interestingly, one of the major criticisms of the film has been that the supernatural elements are nothing but a distraction from what is basically a story about a severely toxic relationship - but that's rather missing the point. Without getting into spoilers, it is left fairly ambiguous as to just how much the supernatural elements directly affect certain parts of the story, but what they unquestionably do is literally and metaphorically tie together toxic relationships across time while at the same time punctuating the religious elements that are writ large all over the film.

In particular, the work of the 18th-century Swedish theologian and self-professed communicator with the spiritual world, Emanuel Swedenborg (look him up, he's fascinating), is referenced from the film's first frame to its last. This isn't just a literary device and, though it comes close at times, it isn't just a pretentious gimmick to make the film seem deeper than it is, but is instead a pointed reference to the religious roots of all ghost stories; to the idea that injustice in this life may lead to justice in the next. It's a common theme across most religions, but here it is most obviously drawing on Christian ideas of heaven, hell and purgatory as filtered through Swedenborg's particular theology.

As for that toxic relationship, before reaching its OTT conclusion in the film's final act, it is generally pretty well-handled, and the way it bounces off the supernatural elements keeps it fresh and intriguing. Amanda Seyfried is typically excellent as Catherine, a talented artist haunted by her own demons who is undermined at every turn by her seemingly "nice guy" husband, who doesn't so much verbally or physically abuse Catherine as gaslight her with astonishing efficiency. However, the film really does belong to George himself as James Norton is just so very, very good at playing just the worst person ever. Not so much by being blatantly evil or even displaying much in the way of obvious "toxic masculinity" as much as by being, basically, a non-celibate incel. 

Unfortunately, for all that, the first two acts of the film are genuinely pretty great and however much I found the entire film to be genuinely very compelling throughout – I am a sucker for good ghost stories, though – the final act falls into the trap that so many horror films, even really good horror films, cannot escape: it shows us the monster. From Peter Straub's otherwise excellent novel, Ghost Story, to Ari Aster's Hereditary to virtually every Stephen King (non-short) story, they all have to overcome the fact that horror is the rare genre with a major flaw built into its very fabric: the narrative need to build to an ultimate revelation of and/ or showdown with the thing that scares us removes what scared us in the first place: mystery and uncertainty. Things Heard & Seen may not be a conventional horror film, but it is absolutely undone by this most basic horror convention.            

Even with all that, though, and even with the largely lukewarm, at best, reviews it has received, I still think it's absolutely worth a watch.


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