Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini return with Things Heard & Seen, a film with so many things going on, you can’t classify it as belonging to one particular genre/subgenre. It’s a psychological horror film, a ghost story, a couple drama, and a spirit flick that becomes imbued with religious imagery. If anything, you can say it’s an eclectic mesh of many horror subgenres with sprinkles of Christianity. It sounds like a lot, and clocking in at 121 minutes, Things Heard and Seen tries to cram in as many storylines as it can. And while it feels like a dense project, the acting, cinematography, and overall atmosphere of the film make it a rather quick, mostly compelling watch.
The film starts off simple enough, as married couple Catherine (Amanda Seyfried, “First Reformed”) and George Claire (James Norton, “Little Women”) move to Chosen, New York, as George has a new job as an art history teacher at Saginaw College. Everything seems to be fine until Catherine realizes that the new house they’re in is haunted by the spirit of the previous wife that lived there. After that specific moment, in which “apparitions” of the ghost are seen in the background, Things Heard & Seen progressively becomes more discombobulated, incapable of finding the one thing that makes any horror film great: A clear identity.
Identity makes any great film, but is particularly important to horror films: It has to know what it is at its core before trying to mix with 1001 different subgenres of horror. Unfortunately for Berman and Pulcini, Things Heard & Seen has no idea what it really wants to be. Should it focus on the couple’s rifting relationship? Or how about George’s charlatan past? Or the ghost! That’s right! We shoehorned in a ghost in the script! Wait . . . how should we use it?!?!? And there lies its biggest problem: The film deals with way too many themes that it has no idea what do with everything it’s dealing with. Whenever Catherine has some sort of spiritual connection with the ghost of the house, it feels terribly jarring and out of place since we’ve never seen a proper “connection” (or symbiotic relationship, if you will) with the two of them. The “ghost” was set up as being some sort of “scary” creature until Saginaw art history chair Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham, “Robin Hood”) tells Catherine that she means no harm . . . but another ghostly creature is in the house and must be “found.”
All of that construct could be a great set-up, where the house’s two spirits psychologically control Catherine and George, damaging their relationship further, with the “evil” spirit controlling George to make more erratic decisions and corrupting his psyche. In contrast, the “good” spirit makes Catherine see the light on George’s abusive tendencies. This would’ve made a more compelling drama if the film solely focused on that.
Thankfully, the psychological horror aspect of the film — which seems to take massive inspiration from Stephen King (and Stanley Kubrick)’s “The Shining” — through its themes and aesthetics delivers. There’s one moment where the film shifts entirely and starts to become quite interesting. It’s where George meets his thesis director (Lewis Payton Jr., “The Extra Man”) who is curious to see George in New York being a “professor,” and where we then learn that George forged his letter of recommendation and his work amounts to nothing but plagiarism. Because of this, the ghost can control George into becoming increasingly psychotic, which prompts three successively cathartic (and scary) sequences involving Floyd, Catherine’s friend Justine (Rhea Seehorn, “I Hate Kids”) and Catherine herself. The atmosphere of George’s descent into madness is top-notch, with James Norton commanding every scene he is in through an unpredictable, and at times, increasingly violent force. Look at his eyes, and you’ll see firsthand how his behavior becomes progressively corrupted.
The same can be said for Amanda Seyfried, whose descent into loneliness and isolation forces her to seek out help from spirits. The sequence in which she assists in a séance with Floyd to communicate with the spirit is very well done and represents how Catherine feels towards speaking with the afterlife. However, it’s her relationship with Floyd and a welcomed extended cameo from veteran actress Karen Allen (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) as Mare Laughton that makes Catherine a tad more effective than when she is alone or when she interacts with the sons of the last couple that lived in their house, Eddie (Alex Neustaedter, “American Woman”) and Cole (Jack Gore, “Wonder Wheel”).
The film’s ending takes a rather spiritual turn, borrowing a visual cue that seems to be taken straight out of Ron Howard’s “Angels and Demons” during the climactic parachute sequence. In this case, George is sailing and sees George Inness’ The Valley of the Shadow of Death. It’s an interesting way to end your film. Still, since spiritual imagery (and Inness’s art) take a backseat for a more conventional horror flick without any sense of identity, it’s hard for the audience to care one bit about what happens when Inness’ painting magically appears at the end — as if it signifies something. If the film spent a tad more time on the significance of the painting, the ghosts, and how George and Catherine’s connection with them made their relationship more toxic than it was, Things Heard & Seen would’ve been something truly memorable. It’s not terrible: The acting is mostly great and the cinematography is highly dynamic and inventive. There are also some genuinely effective scares (anything where Catherine walks in the house and the ghost appears for a brief second is maddening) peppered in what is an otherwise conflicted movie. But most of all, it’s an improvement over “You Should Have Left,” Seyfried’s most recent go in the realm of horror. Now that was just bad.