Hello, everyone! I had a chilling experience on Netflix yesterday. I picked a movie with an awful trailer, naturally expecting it to be 90 minutes of dumb fun, and actually found myself riveted by the story. It was nothing like I expected it to be. While the awful trailer gave the movie the chance to subvert my expectations, it also made the fatal error of editing out-of-context clips into a movie that never existed. In the trailer, Things Heard and Seen is a traditional haunted-house ghost story. In reality, Things Heard and Seen is a psychological drama with hints of spiritualism. Consequently, most of the reviews for this movie express disappointment at the lack of “horror” to be found in this so-called horror movie. Failing to meet trailer expectations is a marketing problem, not a movie problem. Methinks a film with different branding would not be so terribly received.
Synopsis: After painter George Claire is offered a professor position at a private college in upstate New York, he, his wife Catherine, and their young daughter Franny relocate to an ancient farmhouse. George quickly settles into his new life, befriending the department chair Floyd and weaving instructor Justine, but Catherine finds the house unsettling. As Catherine learns more about the house, she and George grow farther apart, and Catherine starts to wonder if George might be hiding something.
My thoughts: I’m going to attempt to write this review with as few spoilers as possible, because I think this movie is best enjoyed blind. This movie is not a horror movie in the traditional sense. While ghosts pop up here and there, and there is a smattering of jump-scares, the real horror in the film derives from the human world. The house, with all its baggage, is simply a catalyst for the unraveling of a marriage.
Things Heard and Seen is not a unique story in this way. In my experience, many “haunted house” movies are not about the houses themselves, but about how the stress of living in an unfamiliar place can expose the already existing cracks in a relationship. Some of my personal favorite horror movies, like The Orphanage and Crimson Peak, use ghosts as a way of highlighting the tension between the living characters in the film. Things Heard and Seen uses ghosts in the same way, baiting the audience into thinking that the horror will be supernatural, and then switching in the true source of horror when the viewer doesn’t expect it.
The movie is a slow burn, but the atmosphere is stellar at drawing in the viewer. From the stylish typography in the opening credits, to the eerie first shots of the farmhouse, to the references to art, spiritualism, and the duality of the worlds of the living and the dead, the movie creates an environment that is equally intriguing and chilling. Having gone to college in upstate New York, and stayed in an AirBnB that looked remarkably similar to the Claire’s haunted farmhouse, I was astonished at how well the movie captured the uncanny spirit of the place. There’s something about the combination of cold weather, farm country, and isolated little communities that makes that area of the country particularly spooky.
While I loved the atmosphere of the movie, the acting is what really sold me. I’ve only seen James Norton as a brutal British kidnapper in Happy Valley, so seeing him play a soft-spoken American professor really sold me on his talents. Amanda Seyfried also blew me away as Catherine. It’s amazing how well she can express herself with just a glance. They had what I can only describe as “anti-chemistry,” which fit perfectly in a movie about a relationship falling apart. You can sense the tension between them in every scene, and almost hear the vitriol that they’re holding in their silences. Much of the “action” in this movie is unseen, which I appreciated, and it’s the same in the dialogue. I felt like we learned more about these characters from what was left unsaid than from what was written in the script.
Some viewers had issues with the script, but I didn’t. I thought it was well-structured, with breadcrumbs sprinkled in the early acts that led the viewers towards an astonishing conclusion. I also appreciated that it for the most part upended Hollywood horror stereotypes, and kept jump scares and James Wan-esque ghost women to a minimum. My only issue with the action-packed third act is that it felt unfinished. The movie plays on the idea of every action having an equal and opposite reaction, but that doesn’t mean the reaction feels satisfying enough for the viewer. In the end, the movie acts more as a meditation on fate than it does on consequences. Whether that’s enough for the viewer is a matter of subjectivity. I was floored, but not everyone will be.
Final Consensus: Things Heard and Seen is not a horror movie, but it’s a frightening story in its own right. One part psychological, one part domestic, and one part supernatural, the film discusses themes of fate, justice, and honesty. Wrongs committed in the sphere of the living continue to echo in the world of the dead, and their reverberations continue to influence the actions of those above. If you go into this movie expecting a horror movie that will scare off your socks, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Things Heard and Seen is a haunting exploration of a broken marriage, and if you take it as it is, you’ll be just as riveted as I was.