Things Heard & Seen

Things Heard & Seen is an unwieldy amalgamation of two genres: disintegrating marriage and haunted house.  While both elements of this surf-and-turf narrative are mildly interesting on their own, the combination of the two ultimately is not rewarding, with one cheapening the impact of the other.  Further confusing things is the ending, which applies a #MeTo, “sisterhood of the ghosts” resolution as a way of justifying the misery that compromises almost all of the movie’s runtime.  The ending is as bizarre as it sounds, and must be seen to be believed.  In spite of all that, and the fact that I don’t recommend watching this movie, I can’t entirely dismiss it, either.

Things Heard & Seen is a horror movie filled with horror movie cliches.  I foresee the movie having an extended life as a drinking game, where participants can shout out the standard plot elements as they arise, like:

  • Spousal sacrifice and resentment
  • A family moving into a huge, old house in the country.
  • A family moving into a house where a horrible murder happened years ago.
  • The cute child whose sole purpose in the story is to be scared by a ghost.
  • One spouse believes in ghosts, the other doesn’t
  • Lights explode when a ghost is present.
  • Locals who help the mother reach out to the spirit via a seance.
  • The house haunted by the spirit of someone killed there.
  • Evil ghost is actually a friendly ghost.
  • One spouse saying: “I would never hurt you.”

In the beginning, George (James Norton) and Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) and their daughter Franny look like a happy family.  As is typical for horror movies, the two adeptly hide the cracks in their marital facade in social gatherings.  During a birthday party for Franny, George tells everyone he is taking a teaching position at a small private college in upstate New York.  This means Catherine will need to give up her career as an art restorer.   Catherine reveals to a friend that there have been money issues for years, something Catherine was not aware of until recently.

The move into the old house puts an immediate strain on the family.  On the first night in their new home, George and Catherine attempt to partake in some conjugal bliss, but Catherine notices the smell of car exhaust.  Franny experiences paranormal activity in her room, screams and heads for mom and dad’s room.  Before you can say “coitus interruptus”, she’s sleeping between mom and a peeved dad.

The following morning, Floyd (F. Murray Abraham), the chair of the Art Department shows George around the campus.  They discuss George’s dissertation on landscape painter George Innes, with particular emphasis on how his work was influenced by Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.  Since most of the viewing audience probably doesn’t know who Swedenborg is, he sums up his philosophy for us:  everything in the natural world has a counterpart in the spiritual world.  If you hadn’t guessed that the movie would feature a ghost (or two), here’s your clue.

What follows next could accurately be described as “Scenes from a Marriage: Paranormal Edition”.  Catherine’s interactions with the house ghost become more frequent, but she doesn’t tell George about them.  I understand her reticence, since George is the supportive type.  He nags Catherine often about not eating enough–and knows when she missed drinking one of her protein shakes.  Although the movie never addresses the cause behind Catherine’s bulimia, I’m guessing it’s because of George’s controlling and domineering behavior towards her.

The nighttime visitations prevent Franny from sleeping by herself, a turn of events that George is not happy about.  George loves his family, except when they’re a burden.  With his home and family life becoming less idyllic, George zeroes in on college coed Willis (Natalia Dyer) as an outlet for his urges.  He brazenly flirts with her while visiting the library with Franny.  Just one encounter with Willis proves to be too much for George to handle, though, and Catherine finds him masturbating in the shower that afternoon.  Based on her expression, I guessed she had never witnessed George applying a bit of “stress release” before.

Proof that rural living definitely brings out the randy side of city folk, Catherine hires local hunk Eddie as groundskeeper.  (To be fair, she also hires Eddie’s younger brother Cole as Franny’s babysitter.)  George coincidentally begins an affair with Willis, jogging over to the stable where she rides horses for rich folks.  “You’re a presumptuous f***er,” Willis snarls at George before disrobing, proving that presumptuous means nothing when you’re right.

Catherine’s relationship with Eddie takes a while longer to reach its similarly predictable conclusion.  She first has to admire his six pack abs, comfort him over the death of his parents, sketch his portrait and admire his piano playing.  (Dude is a fan of Louis Armstrong.)  While resisting temptation, Cathering learns the history of her home, “the perfect house” as George initially described to her.  The previous owners died when the husband attempted to kill his family by drugging them, closing all the windows in the house and leaving the car running in the garage.  The husband and wife died, but their children, groundskeeper Eddie and babysitter Cole survived.  Given George’s money problems, and the house’s dark history, he likely bought the house because it was incredibly cheap.

Eventually, George’s double life starts falling apart.  Willis ends their affair, saying she’s not fooled by his lies.  Fellow professor Justine (Rhea Seehorn) overhears George’s former dissertation counselor ask how he got a teaching position without a recommendation.  Floyd later hears from the same counselor and learns that the recommendation letter George attached to his application was forged.  Catherine learns that the paintings George claimed were his work were actually done by his dead cousin.  Undaunted, George then morphs from a cheating, abusive husband into The Talented Mr. Ripley, quickly dispatching Floyd and Justine when they threaten to expose his fraud on the same day.  Whatever you say about George, he crosses items off of his to do list almost as soon as he adds them!

After what has already been an eventful day, George arrives home to find the other car packed with luggage.  He plays dumb, and chides Catherine into drinking a protein shake.  He finds Franny asleep in bed wearing a coat, and prevents Catherine from taking Franny or calling for help.  George then throws Catherine out of the house and removes the luggage from the car.  She begins to lose consciousness, realizing that George spiked the shake he gave her to drink.  Instead of putting as much distance between herself and George, she inexplicably goes back into the house to use the phone in the bedroom and quickly passes out on the bed.

While the ghost of Ella looks upon Catherine lying helpless, another ghost with a male voice ushers Ella out of the room.  Just when I thought Things Heard & Seen was content with recycling horror movie plot points, it introduces a bizarre plot twist that completely threw me.  George appears, axe in hand, ready to chop up Catherine, his transformation into a murderous psychopath seems complete.  However, instead of looking vengeful or stoic, George is  blubbering and fretful.  We then hear a voice on the soundtrack, one that hasn’t been heard before.  The voice coaches George, prods him on.  “Free yourself,” it intones.  George does the deed and sobs.  For the first time, the events in Things Heard & Seen got my intention.  Who was the male spirit that egged things on?  If it was the spirit of Ella’s husband Calvin, why did it not appear in human form?

George arranges things so that Franny’s babysitter watches her throughout the day, giving George an alibi for not being home when Catherine was supposedly murdered.  George calmly moves into Floyd’s office, hanging the same pictures he appropriated from his dead cousin. The movie returns to the scene it started off with, where George sees blood drip on his car windshield.  The sheriff looks at the murder scene and pretty much believes that George killed her, but he doesn’t have a way to tie him to the murder.  Eddie’s fingerprints are all over the house as well, including the axe.  Apparently George has committed the perfect murder.

Realtor Mare (Karen Allen) discusses the case with her husband, who’s the sheriff, he admits he believes George killed Catherine, but he needs another person to connect the dots.  Mare laments, “Where is the justice for the women of that house?”  Justice definitely is coming, in a most unexpected way.  Justine, who’s been in a coma, is awakened by the joined spirits of Ella and Catherine.  “Goodness always triumphs,” they say.  “If not in this world, then in the next.”

With the movie subtitles on, I discovered that the male ghost voice that George hears is indeed that of Calvin, Ella’s husband.  I guess this revelation should not be a surprise, given that Ella’s spirit was hanging around the house.  I don’t know why Calvin’s influence on George was kept a secret until the last 10-15 minutes of the movie.  It seems obvious in hindsight, but I think the movie has an ulterior motive.  

When George gets ready to pay a social call to Justine in the hospital, Calvin whispers in George’s ear:

They made this happen.  
It’s their fault.  
They have always tried to hold you back.  
You are envied.  
Unrecognized.  
Trust in your impulses.  
Go.

For reasons known only to George, he decides to take a boat to the hospital.  Ella and Catherine chant how the gates of hell are only visible to those about to enter it.  As George tries to guide his boat through the rising storm, his surroundings transform into a vision of Hell.  As George’s boat is consumed by hellfire, the movie ends.

Since the movie isn’t playing fair, I can’t tell if Calvin was the source of George’s misdeeds since arriving in Saginaw, or if George just started listening to him in those moments before he murdered Catherine.  Regardless, George communing with Calvin’s evil spirit does not explain his actions before Saginaw.  He appropriated his cousin’s identity, forged the recommendation letter, hid his financial troubles from Catherine and the story about the murders that happened in their house.  Calvin had no part in those transgressions, so George’s actions cannot be attributed solely to Calvin.  George’s behavior fits a pattern of power and abuse we’ve become all too familiar with over the past several years.

For a long time, George had been possessed by that demonic force known as the patriarchyThings Seen and Heard may have the structure of a horror movie, but it actually is a #MeToo parable.  As proof, witness the movie’s final scenes.  The camera cuts from the image of George’s fiery end to a picture of the house’s original owners, with Ella chanting:

Because of you, we are joined in spirit.
Because of you, our powers grow…
…from tiny drops…
...into an endless sea.

If that isn’t a metaphorical description for how the #MeToo movement grew from a few voices to an outpouring of many women over time, responsible for taking down one powerful man after another, I don’t know what is.  Ultimately, Things Seen and Heard is an awkward combination of #MeToo sympathies and Christian spirituality.  I didn’t find anything in the movie to be scary or horrific, but the final 25-30 minutes were interesting and unexpected.

The acting is decent throughout.  Amanda Seyfried somehow went from a career peak with her performance in Mank to what is essentially a B-movie.  James Norton manages to play George as a man you can see getting through life on charm and good looks.  Ultimately, his performance isn’t threatening enough, and comes off as whiny.  Additionally, George is that rarest of people who becomes agitated and violent after smoking weed.

George’s descent from good husband to cad is too quick, but that’s the fault of the screenplay.  F. Murray Abraham does well with his small part as Floyd, infusing the character with intelligence and intrigue that only a seasoned actor can provide.  Rhea Seehorn adds a refreshing quirkiness to Justine, helping the character make a lasting impression. Karen Allen is always a welcome presence, even in a movie like this, where she isn’t given much to do, but manages to make her part interesting.

Things Seen and Heard is less interesting than the sum of its parts. Analyzing it is more rewarding than the viewing experience. It is a stew of ingredients that never comes together as an appetizing meal, but you still appreciate the carrots and the chunks of meat.

Obvious inspirations for Things Seen and Heard:

  • The Amityville Horror
  • The Conjuring
  • Insidious
  • What Lies Beneath
  • Poltergeist
  • Heredity
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley

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