Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THINGS HEARD & SEEN
Rated TV-MA, 1 hour and 59 minutes
The scary things in THINGS HEARD AND SEEN are rarely the ones heard or seen. Rather, the insidious nature of deceit and narcissism are supposed to be the unsettling elements. Yet directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s haunted house thriller rarely brings eerie chills to these things that are neither seen nor heard. In a cinematic séance of sorts, their adaptation of Elizabeth Brundage’s novel “All Things Cease to Appear” channels films like ALL GOOD THINGS, DECIEVED, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (which also starred Amanda Seyfried) and THE NEST (another recent, tonally similar feature also set in the 1980’s where the haunted house is actually the marriage). However, it does so in a far less than otherworldly fashion. The only specters that haunt this joint are the ghosts of films past.
Talented art restorer Catherine Claire’s (Seyfried) life isn’t turning out to be the perfect portrait she would’ve painted for herself. Not only does she suffer from micro-aggressions that her arrogant, controlling, secretive husband George (James Norton) slings at her, she’s having to sacrifice her career and friendships for his new job as a professor at a private college upstate. Their marital discord is great enough to wonder why and how they’re even together. Her lone form of control in a spiraling world is bulimia (side note: there’s no content warning at the top of the film). But she represses her intuitions and frustrations as she’s genuinely happy being a mom to their young daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger).
Their farmhouse property, built in the 1800s, is a direct reflection of their marriage: dilapidated and in desperate need of restoration. It’s also rumored to be haunted by past residents who have died under horrific, sad circumstances. Catherine discovers a book illustrating this as fact. The spirited presence makes itself known rather quickly, expressing itself through strange smells, furniture movements and electricity fluxes. Catherine’s even bestowed with trippy hallucinations. As she begins learning of their dream home’s nightmarish backstory, George starts carrying on an illicit affair with a local college student (Natalia Dyer). Soon the secrets from the couple’s past, as well as the home’s, will be unleashed with catastrophic consequences.
The film is on bad footing from the get-go, beginning in media res – a counter-intuitive gimmick that doesn’t add interest to the story, but majorly subtracts from its intensity. The tale experiences a detrimental shift in focus in the third act, from the house to its inhabitants’ previous misdeeds that have nothing to do with the home. Supporting characters, while played by a capable group of actors, are poorly written and one-dimensional at best. George’s boss Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), a scholarly expert on one lone book that’s specifically designed as a ham-handed nod to explain themes and character construction, is bequeathed a ton of exposition. Catherine’s meddling new best friend Justine (Rhea Seehorn), an adjunct teacher at George’s school, is there to move contrived parts of the narrative forward. She’s tasked to deliver some awfully convenient and dull, big swings. Catherine’s cutie-pie handyman Eddie Lucks (Alex Neustaedter), who grew up in the house, isn’t so much a red herring as Catherine’s inevitable boytoy sounding board.
Though the directing duo’s vision of how the ghastly ghost reveals herself fails to scare – appearing expectedly in backgrounds, or manifesting through ropey CGI as a blurred, scratchy, black and white phantasm – they occasionally get creative when it comes to setting atmospheric tones through camerawork. The camera floats through the chaos and conversations of the couples’ dinner parties, augmenting the woozy distillation of Catherine’s disillusioned psyche. Larry Smith’s cinematography juxtaposes warm and cool tones, also helping to set the mood. However, when the spooks don’t materialize and predictable, plodding character motivations overtake the narrative (replete with tropes endemic to the thriller genre), disinterest sets in. And unfortunately, despite a strong first act teasing fascinating characters and their conundrums, the climax is rushed, wholly unsatisfying and illogical.
Similar to the ephemeral nature of poltergeists, the memory of this film will fade soon after the end credits roll.
Grade: 2 out of 5
THINGS HEARD AND SEEN begins streaming on Netflix on April 29.