Things Heard & Seen is a mystery horror thriller based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. Directed and written by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who are best known for the Paul Giamatti-led biopic American Splendor, this marks their maiden voyage into the realm of horror. The filmmaking duo are married, giving this eerie and haunting film about the dissolution of a marriage an extra kick. While the marketing is built almost entirely around name star Amanda Seyfried, it’s really a co-lead dynamic shared with James Norton that drives this unsettling chiller.
As with many haunted house horrors, a family of three relocate from Manhattan to the Hudson Valley where an art restoration specialist and art history professor take up residence. Settling into an old home with a long and dark history, the couple try to acclimatise to their new surroundings, as Catherine learns more about their historic hamlet and George becomes increasingly popular at the local university. Both eager to start over, they soon find distractions as a sinister presence drives them further apart.
Amanda Seyfried is a very watchable star whose big eyes and elemental performance make her seem at home as the corruptible innocent in horrors and thrillers. Far from the holiday vibrations of Mamma Mia, the oceanic talent often finds herself in shallow waters clinging onto thin characters. Unfortunately, this is the case with Things Heard & Seen where wisps of character and Seyfried’s enigmatic star presence are the currency. Playing opposite her is James Norton, who is the actual lead based on screen time. Easy on the eye and just as easy to write off, Norton leans into his character’s sociopathic tendencies. Then, it’s wonderful to see F. Murray Abraham as a fellow academic who does enough with a supporting role to leave you wanting more.
Things Heard & Seen has a classic set up for horror emulating films like Pet Sematary and aiming for the dizzy heights of Hereditary. Fitting into a new community, the sense of being an impostor, uncovering a family’s dark secret and the loneliness of a troubled marriage all feed into the uncertainty and fear of the family’s next chapter. These timeless themes should convey suspense and be leveraged in a way to keep the characters full of self-doubt and psychological turmoil. While touching on these aspects from the novel, the mystery horror thriller doesn’t linger long enough.
“This is where our home is my sweet, heart.”
Without the slow creep, Things Heard & Seen feels like a highlights reel for a television series. Trying to pack the story content of a season into the space of two hours, the horror moves at a stormy pace almost afraid to let their viewer reflect. Failing to build suspense, cultivate its eerie atmosphere and immerse itself in the dark mood of its setting and predicament, it races along checking boxes without taking the time to dwell or give its characters space to breathe. Perpetually in a hot fuss, this creates a barrier to engaging with the characters, which is further distanced by their lack of actual contact points.
You can appreciate the sleek feel of the cinematography and the heady swirl of themes at play but it seems in vain when the characters get left behind. Inspired by films like The Shining and Hereditary, Berman and Pulcini want grand horror but end up with a mulch of half-baked scenes that show promise but under-deliver. The intrigue of the premise, visual aesthetic, horror elements and quick pacing keep you transfixed, teasing you with the promise of what’s to come, but there’s very little behind the façade and even less to remember once the credits roll.
Things Heard & Seen is a beautiful mystery horror thriller that looks and sounds the part with a promising cast, but it ultimately falls short. Unable to resonate on an emotional level, unwieldy in its attempts to harness its powerful themes and afraid to slow down to steep its story in atmosphere, mood and suspense, it’s a runaway ghost train of a film that never actually arrives. Skipping along the surface of things, there are glimpses of what it could have been, making it an eyeful without the necessary depth to truly entertain or satisfy.
The bottom line: Lacklustre