'Things Heard & Seen' Faces the Horrors of Privilege and Gaslighting Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Starring Amanda Seyfried, James Norton, Natalia Dyer, Rhea Seehorn
Published May 03, 2021Calling Amanda Seyfried's character in Things Heard & Seen a "nervous-wife" type would be to misread this multifaceted character. Nothing like the meek, saccharine mother archetype we're used to seeing in the many adaptations of the Amityville murders or in the Conjuring films, Seyfried's Catherine Claire is a charming, angry, endlessly relatable woman who is haunted firstly by her husband and secondly by her house. This upturning of a tired trope is a guiding theme in Things Heard & Seen.
The plot, on the face of it, rings familiar, but this seems almost intentional or paradoxical considering the story the movie goes on to actually tell. Look past its trite veneer and you'll find a gem of a scary movie where nothing is as it seems. Things Heard & Seen delivers a ghostly mystery peopled with vibrant, savvy and complicated characters — plus one very, very terrifying man.
Things Heard & Seen is based on Elizabeth Brundage's novel All Things Cease to Appear, and it was adapted for the screen by Shari Springer Berman, who co-directs the movie with her American Splendor collaborator Robert Pulcini.
The story begins in the spring of 1980, following artist Catherine (Cath for short) and her art history professor husband George (James Norton) as they move from New York City to a 19th century home in Upstate New York with their daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger). From the start, you can sense the fraught relationship between husband and wife. Cath is obviously sad about leaving her dream job and city friends for George, who's just completed his PhD and has landed a teaching job at a university in a rural community. If Ivy League schools could be personified by a character, it would be George: he wears collared shirts under crewneck sweaters, has a pearly white smile and Robert Redford blonde curls that flop charmingly across his forehead. He's the kind of guy for whom the world is built, but who would still go out of his way to criticize something like affirmative action. As George teaches and charms his female students, Cath is left to the house's upkeep. In working to turn her house into a home, Cath discovers ghosts, secrets about her new home's sordid past, and who George really is. What follows is a tense and horrifying string of events that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The film is perfectly cast it is. Norton is perfect as privilege personified. He has a megawatt smile that he lends George, which makes everyone fall in love with him — a useful trait when you're a gaslighting jerk. Seyfried is amazing as the tired Cath. How both Seyfried and Cath upturn the trope of dutiful mother is stunning to watch. Cath keeps up appearances of a perfect marriage to all those watching, but when company has left, she becomes quiet and resentful of George — you can tell there hasn't been love in this marriage for a while.
Marital troubles haven't calcified Cath, though. Rather, when in company or when George isn't around, Cath is inquisitive and intelligent, curious to learn about her house's history, interested in seeing her new friends' alpacas, and excited about getting George's colleague Justine (Rhea Seehorn) to weave Franny a garment. In other words, Cath's brightness with friends and her hired hands — brothers Eddie (Alex Neustaedter) and Cole (Jack Gore) — juxtaposed against her coldness toward George paint the portrait of a woman who is complex, intelligent and wary of assholes. Cath is anything but meek.
Seyfried as Cath is gratifying to watch. Cath has an eating disorder, and while she picks at salads, she gulps down wine. Anything to numb George, it seems. And with her teary gaze, she is able to endow Cath with a wealth of empathy towards those who have suffered. Seyfried takes the already layered Cath and makes her uniquely her own through a relatable, human portrayal — audiences will be able to see themselves in Cath's shoes, recoiling from George's touch as soon as others are out of sight, quipping sarcastically at the creepy things he says, drinking too much and not eating enough. Berman and Seyfried give us a whole, intriguing character, lending Cath a grit that's reminiscent of '90s Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath.
Even the stellar supporting cast (F. Murray Abraham as the kind professor Floyd, James Urbaniak as Justine's husband Bram, and Karen Allen as the realtor who spills the beans on the haunted house) are great at depicting characters who will surprise you with their fallibility and empathy. Usually in mysteries, you have withholding characters with no one challenging them, only being silently suspicious. Here, however, women challenge the male characters. Even Natalia Dyer's Willis, the undergrad with whom George cheats on Cath — don't worry, this isn't a spoiler — is likeable insofar as she is fleshed out and shown to be conflicted about what she's doing. But Seehorn as Justine is a confident second-wave feminist professor who takes Cath to women's groups and stands up to George, going so far as interrogating his intimidation with her searchlight gaze.
The horror in Things Heard & Seen is subtle in the way being gaslit is subtle, but when it does appear, it's terrifying. Part and parcel of the house's ghosts is the horror of George and what the world allows white men to get away with, how it allows them to mangle the people in their path toward success. The story's use of generational trauma being housed by an aged building, unfolding through the clash of spirits, is brilliant at not only depicting violence against women but also challenging it through the strong supporting cast, who confidently bear witness.
The Amityville Horror movies have always been about the violence of a patriarch being unleashed with impunity, but Things Heard & Seen does not stand for this. Berman and Pulcini upend all your expectations by taking familiar stories of bad men and undercutting them by the second-wave feminism of the early '80s. Watch this movie for the stellar acting and a cathartic scare. (Netflix)