Horror films are like snowflakes. Some may look incredibly similar to each other, but at their heart, each one has something unique and new to bring to the table different than anything before (unless you’re Gus Van Sant remaking Psycho…that one kind of disproves my whole theory here). Horror can be anything, and taking on so many different tones and mixing with so many genres is perhaps the most fascinating and creative ways a filmmaker can approach storytelling. Things Heard & Seen is an interesting case because it’s not the first horror/prestige drama that’s ever been made, but there’s something so enticing about its focus on drama and its relatively short bursts of horror make it effective as a whole. It has its major issues, but there’s something so mysterious and enigmatic about it that it was hard to shake.
Set in 1980’s New York, Catherine Clare (Amanda Seyfried) is a young woman and mother finding herself having to uproot her life in Manhattan to move upstate when her husband, George (James Norton), secures a teaching position at a small private college in the Hudson Valley. After settling into a beautiful home on a substantial plot of land, Catherine finds herself isolated from a sense of community while George thrives in his new position. As Catherine’s frustration grows, she begins to see vague specters pervade her new home, and she must find a way to discern whether what she is seeing is real or whether it all is a result of her husband’s sheltering of her. This journey will let her discover that true darkness can come much closer to home.
It’s difficult to describe Things Heard & Seen and have it not sound like every other haunted house movie ever made, and in a sense…yes, it does start out that way. Luckily, thanks to some good performances and a few clever dramatic twists that shake things up more than its horror does, the film generally works. Things Heard & Seen isn’t as much a standard haunted house movie as it is The Haunting of Hill House meets Marriage Story.
Seyfried, unsurprisingly, is a fabulous lead here, and her doe-eyed mysticism lends an engaging sense of wonder in discovering the secrets of her new home, and her perfect marriage. Opposite Seyfried is an equally engaging Norton, who always gives good scumbag. I’m sure Norton is a lovely man in real life, but casting him as the shitty husband with something to lose is always an archetype that works. Add in the faux-academic smarminess that comes with the film’s Northeastern setting and his affluent upbringing, and it’s enough to activate my fight-or-flight at least a good 500 feet away from him at all times. In a film like this, you can scare me as much as you would like with the supernatural, but I’ll still be afraid of the over-charismatic white dude even more. I’m glad Things Heard & Seen understands that as a fear tactic in and of itself.
What builds this really engaging sort of macabre wonder surrounding the whole film is Peter Raeburn’s fluttery, mysterious musical score. Looking to spark intrigue, rather than pure fear, Raeburn’s score has an ethereal vibe to it that gives Things Heard & Seen a much lighter, airy tone that works in balancing the film’s often conflicting tones into something a bit more cohesive. It’s one of those scores that you sit and wonder if the film would’ve been even remotely as effective without it, and that’s artistry.
Things Heard & Seen is a long damn movie. While 121 minutes doesn’t seem too egregious in the grand scheme of Snyder Cuts, there is a deliberate slowness to the film that would fabulously punctuate a film about half-an-hour shorter, but the film’s third act begins to stretch itself out far beyond its welcome, leading to a finale that feels unfortunately half-baked and a bit antithetical to the calculated nature of its first two acts. It’s not so egregiously bad in the way much cheaper and worse have bungled their finales, but it’s still enough to feel underwhelmed by it all, particularly after taking its sweet time to get to it.
But even despite that, there was something magnetic and fascinating about Things Heard & Seen that never bored me, even if its pace and narrative decisions near the end tested my patience. It doesn’t change that this is a classy little horror film that’s far more about the subtle chills and human interactions than anything else. It’s not a film for a fun night in with a horror film, but for anyone who wants the slow-burn haunted house horror of I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House with the marital discord of Marriage Story (I’m not really sure why you would want that), the final product of its creation is still engaging and harmless enough to warrant a recommendation. Will I remember it for years to come? Probably not, but for the time it gave me, it’s more than sufficient to quell a quiet Friday night.
Available on Netflix beginning April 29th, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.