Things Heard & Seen is set to release tomorrow on Netflix. The stunning, and often harrowing, supernatural tale based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage was co-written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.
In the film, Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried) reluctantly trades life in 1980s Manhattan for a remote home in the tiny hamlet of Chosen, New York, after her husband George (James Norton) lands a job teaching art history at a small Hudson Valley college. Even as she does her best to transform the old dairy farm into a place where young daughter Franny will be happy, Catherine increasingly finds herself isolated and alone. She soon comes to sense a sinister darkness lurking both in the walls of the ramshackle property—and in her marriage to George.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this particular film. The story itself seems to emerge from another time, and I don’t mean the 1980s. So many elements reach back to its Gothic predecessors. The film could easily sit on a shelf between Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Those timeless tales mine the psyches of women, spilling their horrors onto the page, empowering while terrifying them.
Of course, to do this, you need a strong actress in the lead, and Seyfried once again proves she is up to the task. This may be a story about a marriage, but we are firmly in her corner and her POV from the beginning. The actress brings a vulnerability to Catherine without ever fully becoming a doormat no matter how much her own husband tries to isolate and gaslight her.
Playing her opposite, Norton as George is exactly who we need him to be. This is a master manipulator who craves success and control so much that he has diminished his wife, driving her to an eating disorder, and is willing to do anything to maintain the appearance that he is a successful and capable husband, father, and teacher. He is a terrifying aggressor without slipping into a caricature of the trope largely because Berman and Pulcini give us a number of glimpses into his psyche to provide a depth that is perhaps unexpected but welcome.
Seyfried and Norton are joined by an impressive and talented cast of supporting players, not least of which is award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) as George’s department head who also happens to believe in the supernatural/paranormal. He befriends Catherine and does his very best to help her discover the truth behind the mysterious happenings in her home.
Likewise, Rhea Seehorn (Better Call Saul) impresses as one of George’s colleagues who seems immune to his charismatic charm.
The real standout for me in the supporting cast, however, was Alex Neustaedter (Colony). A brooding young man with a tragic connection to George and Catherine’s home, the actor gives a subtle and tender performance providing an important mirror to George’s toxic behaviors. He proves himself more than capable throughout the film, and the story is better for him being in it.
Of course, the best acting in the world is useless without good writing and Pulcini and Berman did an excellent job crafting this haunting tale, drawing upon the themes of Brundage’s novel and amplifying them for the screen. The writer/directors have a keen eye for creating lasting images, as well, often presenting scenes that make the viewer feel off-balance. There are moments throughout Things Heard & Seen that will haunt you long after the final credits.
They also remembered the cardinal rule for creating a classic haunting: though it must be scary and compelling, the story itself must be able to stand on its own legs if you remove the ghosts. Things Heard & Seen most definitely has legs.
The brutality of the central relationship is, sadly, all too real. One does not have to look far to find stories of women in relationships with domineering men who convince them that they are less or worthless in order to control them. The question is, does the reality have to be portrayed so tragically on screen. That is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
If you’re a fan of classic, atmospheric ghost stories set in rambling old houses, Things Heard & Seen is for you. No doubt fans of slow-burn series like The Haunting of Hill House will find plenty to love in this film.