“Things Heard & Seen” is partly a Gothic horror movie and partly a portrait of a marriage falling apart. It’s more effective as the latter than the former, but by the end these two seemingly separate kinds of movie dovetail in a way that’s surprisingly clever and effective.
It’s also the rare thriller from the husband-and-wife duo of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, whose eclectic filmography as a writing/directing team includes the brilliant “American Splendor” and the so-so comedy “The Nanny Diaries.” So while the setting may seem familiar—a creaky, old house with a dark past where things go bump in the night—Berman and Pulcini are operating in a different, low-key vibe. Their adaptation of the Elizabeth Brundage novel All Things Cease to Appear (which is a much better title, by the way) boasts a fantastic cast of actors who are always fascinating to watch even when the material itself is less so.
We begin with a bit of a trick, one of many we’ll discover as the story flits along. A man drives up to a bleak, wooden farmhouse in winter 1980. As he pulls into the garage, he notices something dripping onto his windshield from the ceiling above—a substance he instantly recognizes as blood. He rushes inside to find his young daughter playing alone in the living room. Something horrible has happened, but to whom, and why?
Flash back to the previous spring, when the man, George Claire (James Norton), and his wife, Catherine (Amanda Seyfried), are celebrating their daughter Franny’s birthday at their Manhattan apartment. They’re a seemingly happy couple with an exciting future ahead of them: He’s just taken a job as an assistant art professor at a small, liberal arts college upstate. She’s an experienced art restorer who’s talked herself into the possibility of adventure in a new town. But a fellow mom commenting on how skinny Catherine has gotten, followed by Catherine eating a single bite of cake and then promptly throwing it up in the bathroom, is an early indication of domestic turbulence.
The farmhouse George has found for the family (with the help of Karen Allen as their real estate agent, a lovely addition) is the stuff horror movies are made of: built in the 18th century within the pastoral splendor of the Hudson River Valley, offering equal parts beauty and foreboding, it’s isolated even within a small town. (Cinematographer Larry Smith creates a chilly mood in his depiction of a place where the skies are perpetually gray.) Ladies at the historical society whisper about it. Brothers who live nearby (Alex Neustadter and Jack Gore) offer to help with repairs, but may have other intentions.
Settling into this place is more challenging than Catherine had envisioned on multiple fronts. It’s bad enough that she’s finding unsettling items left behind by the previous owners. It seems they’ve also left parts of themselves there. Lamps flicker, electricity buzzes and ethereal wisps of light pass along the windows and walls. Seyfried takes it all in silently, her expressive, wide eyes indicating her inner wonder. But in an unexpected twist, she’s not fearful of the spirits floating about—she’s fascinated by them, and wants to help them achieve peace. A scene Seyfried shares with the always tremendous F. Murray Abraham as George’s department chair is the film’s warmest, as the two reveal their mutual concern for these fitful souls.
But the supernatural side of “Things Heard & Seen” is never as gripping as its marital turmoil. George may be charismatic but he’s also a raging narcissist and a pathological liar, and Norton makes watching his silky-smooth exterior deteriorate thoroughly enjoyable. At first it seems like he’s just a flirty professor, basking in the attention of his adoring, female students, but there’s so much more to him—and so much less. Watching Catherine come into her own over the course of the film and establish her individual identity and interests—even as George wants to keep her in her place as the little woman—provides a greater source of tension and threats than any mischievous ghost. Seyfried steadily turns her character’s fragility to rage, and her propensity for putting away white wine on an empty stomach, either to celebrate or escape, is a recipe for volatility.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast that enters the picture as the Claires’ bond frays does wonders to liven things up within this understated horror setting. Rhea Seehorn nearly runs away with the whole movie as George’s no-nonsense colleague who sees the couple’s marriage more clearly than they do, perhaps. She’s an “adjunct weaving professor,” which is amusing in itself, and her inspired delivery provides a much-needed jolt of energy. James Urbaniak, as her pot-growing husband, gets to say things like: “We should go outside and look at the alpacas before they nap.” They’re totally free and intriguing at a time when the Claires’ own connection is collapsing. There’s a whole, juicy “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scenario just waiting to be explored with these two couples. But alas, the spirits are calling.
Berman and Pulcini eventually weave these two threads together, if you’ll pardon the pun, and “Things Heard & Seen” grows legitimately creepy and maybe a little too crazy. But it might also make you think twice when you hear about a great, old house with good bones that you can get for a steal.
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