Look a little deeper into just about any decent haunted house movie, and you’ll almost always see a story about people who feel trapped by some larger aspect of their lives. Horror movie protagonists dealing with an evil doll can at least try to get rid of it; slasher victims can at least try to flee from danger. And people threatened by something they don’t understand, be it a curse or a creature, can always investigate and try to come to terms with the unknown. But a house represents a commitment, a sunk cost that is extremely difficult to get rid of. In a movie like Netflix’s baffling new horror drama Things Heard and Seen, the haunted house is a metaphor as much as a horror device, the symbol of a place that should be a warm and protective home but is not, and the emblem of a commitment to which it is difficult to escape. And as a metaphor, it’s the most cohesive and compelling thing in a weirdly confusing movie.
Amanda Seyfried and Nevers‘ James Norton plays Catherine and George Claire, a married couple raising a 4-year-old daughter, Franny, in 1980 Manhattan. Catherine has a satisfying job as an expert art restorer, but when George announces to their friends that he has finished his thesis and has been offered a teaching position at a private college upstate from New York, she quits her career obediently, without complaint, telling a close friend that she owes George her support. There is clearly something wrong with Catherine’s life, given that she starves herself and forces herself to throw up the food she eats, and even at first she flinches when, for example, George chooses their new home in the small town of Chosen, pressuring her when she even shows token resistance.
It turns out she’s right to be pissed off about his insistence on the house: the place has seen horrors and there’s a supernatural presence active there. The slow-burning ghost story that follows begins with the usual haunted house rules, at least in many ways: electric lights flicker, Franny sees a mysterious female figure in her room, objects around the house move without be touched, etc. right now. But one thing that is immediately unusual in Things Heard and Seen it’s that Catherine doesn’t seem particularly upset by the appearance or the effects. She immediately begins to sympathize with the ghost of the house, and when George’s boss Floyd (the always pleasant F. Murray Abraham) gives her his warm and encouraging theories on spiritualism, she is immediately in favor of a seance – with George, a dismissive cynic, distinctly uninvited.
Things Heard and Seenbased on the 2016 novel by Elizabeth Brundage All things cease to appear, spends most of its runtime building an unconventional ghost story out of an entirely conventional relationship drama. Catherine and George’s marriage looks a lot like Sean Durkin’s equally frayed relationship The nestwith a good percentage of The talented Mr. Ripley sprinkled. He is a liar and a cheat who blames his choices on his behavior. Meanwhile, she enlightens him about his eating disorder and hides how miserable she is while finding reasons to be passively aggressively mean to him. The otherworldly force in the house is drawn to their conflict and resentments – or perhaps fuels them? This is one of the things that is obviously unclear until the abrupt and confusing ending.
The way the narrative falls apart is a particular shame, because for much of its run the film is a compelling melodrama, a “high horror” story that limits cheap shocks and creepy leaps, and replaces with its own unusual rules for the supernatural. As a visitor tells Catherine, evil spirits are only attracted to evil people, which means that unless she harbors evil herself, the ghost who tries to get in touch with her is kind and caring. In this particular fantasy, ghosts are specifically attracted to people who mirror them in a certain way, and Catherine’s ghost can respond to her troubled marriage.
The story heads in some pretty over-the-top directions as the unexpected revelations pile up, but fully blending supernatural horror with bleak marital drama, writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor, nanny diaries) inject new energy into both genres and take them away from the usual predictable structures. As gripping as haunted house movies like His House, Conspiracy, Whirlwind of echoesand even the OG Fighting spirit were, and even though they toy with the idea of being tied to a place and fearing it at the same time, they all follow escalating patterns that mostly boil down to “creepy ghosts becoming more and more frightening”. Things Heard and Seen wins dramatically just by overturning that expectation.
But the martial drama doesn’t go so far down familiar roads, in part because Berman and Pulcini never fully connect the way Catherine feels connected to home and the way she feels connected to her floundering marriage. Seyfried gives her some presence and appeal, but she never has much agency as a character. Catherine begins battered by factors that are never fully explained: is her eating disorder indicative of the stress she’s been under in her relationship, or is it meant to excuse her lack of energy and focus? Are there concrete reasons why she is afraid to resist George, or does her obedience come from her family history or her personality? Who is she, really? As the possible answers begin to become clearer and she learns more about who George really is, she takes less and less action, retreating into a smirking, petulant passivity that is unconvincing. in a protagonist and which only serves the narrative. pulling him longer so George could get away with even more.
And then there’s the laughable final sequence, which not only assumes the audience has completely internalized the movie’s made-up rules for the supernatural, but can also guess many more. Plus, it assumes they’ll be willing to put up with ridiculous and unwarranted events, as long as they feel at least somewhat like justice. The ending is a bold piece in a film full of bold pieces, but it seems designed more to spark discussion than to pull the narrative together, or to give viewers horror-movie catharsis or wedding-drama resolution. Haunted house movies are usually about people stuck in one place with no good options for escape. Things Heard and Seen continues this trend, and for much of its runtime, Catherine’s inability to escape becomes a memorable enigma. But the film’s eventual collapse is also inevitable, and when it breaks down, it takes all of the film’s accumulated goodwill with it.
Things Heard and Seen is now streaming on Netflix.