To the annals of Bad Movie Husbands, let us add George Claire, the contemptible academic assayed by James Norton in the starchy new Netflix joint Things Heard and Seen. He checks every box on the list of tropes associated with silver-screen college professors: bookishly handsome, sure, but also self-absorbed, pretentious, entitled, condescending to his wife Catherine (Amanda Seyfried), and overly familiar with the student body’s bodies. Not to mention that he hustled his spouse and their daughter into a move from New York City to a farmhouse tucked away in the wilds of upstate for a gig at the tony Saginaw College rather hastily, and under shadowy circumstances. Plus, everyone who gets on his bad side seems to wind up vanished or in a coma. That he’s up to something isn’t even a question – it’s only a matter of how deep his evil runs.
He’s the most malevolent force in what technically qualifies as a haunted house film, an oddly angled inflection on the mini-genre in which the intrusive specters may have plans of their own and death may not be the worst thing in the world. Catherine feels like a hostage in her own home, and though the ominously buzzing night-lights and hallucinations of bloodied mutant fetuses in the kitchen sink drain aren’t helping her fragile mental state, they’re not the real sources of menace in her life. Like a trusted confidante urging her out of a bad relationship, the supernatural elements complement and comment upon the primary plot thread of her curdling marriage, rather than terrorizing for their own sake. She begins the film in thrall of his toxic influence, internalizing his offhanded criticisms and expelling them in the form of bulimia during her first scene. By the conclusion, she’s achieved a grisly form of freedom.
The pedigree of co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Oscar nominees once upon a time for their American Splendor screenplay, would suggest that they recognized a worthy concept in Elizabeth Brundage’s novel All Things Cease to Appear when they took the job adapting it. And yet their dull-edged filmmaking overcooks any clever novelty of the original text in potboiler waters, until it’s all but indistinguishable from the dashed-off horror-tinged thrillers Netflix pumps out en masse to fill their library. Regardless of the greater significance attached to the actions each character takes, their motivations and outcomes announce themselves well in advance to destroy any attempted sense of mystery. Berman and Pulcini bank on suspense, despite a queasy inevitability being the strongest thing this retread of the familiar has going for it.
The thin tertiary characters existing solely to nudge the plot this way or that have a way of laying out their whole fate within moments of their first appearance. The second a strapping young local boy (Alex Neustaedter) stops by to offer his services as a handyman and make googly eyes at Catherine, we know they’re going to bone, in the same respect as when George stops to briefly chat Caravaggio with comely undergrad Willis (Natalia Dyer). In the case of either of George’s colleagues, whether that’s the friendly and paternal department head (F Murray Abraham) or his more skeptical peer (Rhea Seehorn) who bonds with Catherine, it’s a given that they will ultimately be dispatched for standing in George’s way. The script arranges itself around his nefariousness and his wife’s response to it, making the myriad subplots into distractions from the trashier intrigue we should be pursuing.
Catherine’s investigation into her home’s morbid past similarly accomplishes little beyond gumming up the works and elongating the run time past the two-hour mark. All the possibly cursed rings and visions of early 20th-century family discord hang on the acrimony between the central couple like ill-fitting clothes, what should be an ambiguous presence made to resemble the standard paranormal activity. The notion of permeability between our plane and the next, spelled out in an epigram title card from theologian Emanuel Swedenborg musing on mortality, does supply the film with a strange and ballsy “so, uh, here’s this!” sort of ending.
But that scene, wondrous and inexplicable and charged with the primal power of the natural world, only serves to remind an audience that they’ve spent the preceding film accepting less. Focus and economy, two qualities sorely lacking in Berman and Pulcini’s approach to the material, could’ve gotten this uneven effort to do something fresh with a hidebound mode of horror into working order. As is, they stop short in places and go overboard in others, resulting in a misfire diverting only in fits and starts. Catherine spends the first half of the film feeling trapped in a roomy yet empty space, wanting more and frustrated that she’s not getting it – a feeling the viewer comes to sympathize with all too well.
Things Heard and Seen is now available on Netflix