As soon as there is a whiff of a period Gothic-inspired horror on the horizon, I’m gonna come running straight toward that haunted house, instead of away from it. So, you could say that I’m the target audience for Netflix’s latest, Things Heard & Seen, based on the book All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. Perhaps surprisingly, the period in question is 1979-1980 (not earlier), but the setting is more traditional – an isolated farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, upstate New York. Artist and art restorer Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) moves with her husband George (James Norton) and their four year old daughter Franny from the city to the sticks because he’s got a new position at a small college. Catherine becomes fascinated by the history of the old house that they’ve moved into and believes its former residents (from the 1880s) are communicating with her. The film is mainly a marital drama that explores things unraveling between the couple, with a smattering of ghostly spookiness, but whatever is haunting Catherine is definitely not worse than the man she’s sharing her bed with.
As the marriage starts to go off the rails, both parties become interested in younger people. For George, it’s Willis (Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer, who seems destined to never leave the past) and for Catherine, its Eddy (Alex Neustaedter) a handyman who offers to help at the house, along with his younger brother, who babysits Franny. Legendary actor Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood herself!) has not much more than a cameo as Mare, the lady who shows the couple the house. F Murray Abraham plays Floyd, George’s boss at the college, who takes a shine to Catherine and helps her perform a seance. The brilliant Rhea Seehorn (Kim Wexler in Better Call Saul) plays local hippy weaver Justine, who befriends Catherine and becomes a thorn in George’s side.
Things Heard & Seen is written and directed by partners Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (The Nanny Diaries, American Splendor). British actor James Norton is mostly known for his roles in period films and TV shows such as Grantchester, Little Women and War and Peace. It is good to see him get stuck into a role in which every scene you think this person cannot possibly get any worse and then he does. It seems bizarre that there are just four days between Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, in which Amanda Seyfried was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Netflix’s Mank and this film coming to the same streaming service, but with Netflix’s customary lack of publicity push. Seyfried is a very good actress (something which has often been overshadowed by her looks) and it’s good to see her starting to take on more mature roles. Catherine is a complicated character, who is not perfect by any means and Seyfried brings nuance to her portrayal.
Norton brings unpredictability to George, which aids the tension in some scenes, such as one where he returns home and finds Eddy playing piano for Catherine and he absolutely fulfils the gaslighting husband Gothic trope. The film veers into melodrama towards the end, as more and more revelations come out about George and he struggles to contain his secrets and lies. The ghostly aspects also ramp up, as you would expect, with a fairly cringey ‘women supporting women from beyond the grave’ through-line. Your tolerance for ridiculousness will vary, but sit back, relax and go along with the wild ride that is Gothic storytelling. Despite the sillier aspects, I couldn’t help but enjoy Things Heard & Seen – it has a lot of things to like – the 80s setting, the historical farmhouse and artistic elements, the Gothic feel and good performances from strong actors (even in tiny roles). It won’t prove particularly memorable or make a lasting impression, but makes for an entertaining two hours.
Things Heard & Seen will be available on Netflix from 29 April, 2021.