Catherine Clare (Amanda Seyfried) is an art restorer in New York City, and a reputable one at that, but gives up her career to move to a remote country town upstate with her husband George (James Norton), who has taken a teaching job at a small college. Along with their young daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger), they settle into a farm house in need of restoration, the idyllic lifestyle something George feels will be perfect for the family, especially Catherine’s eating disorder, though there seems to be a sinister presence in the shadows of this house and soon enough, things begin to fall apart.
Co-directed by filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, and based on the book All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, Things Heard & Seen is a lackluster ghost story that lives up to its name in revealing every single secret it holds with total transparency. There is almost a boldness to how obvious it treats its screenplay, building its tepid mystery with a slew of clichés that give this a kind of comical tone even as it works hard to be just the opposite.
It begins as so many movies do now with tiresome effect in opening with a dramatic moment of tragedy before reeling us back in time a bit to carry us to where it started. We learn that George is an ambitious fellow, wanting status in his career and needing a picture postcard lifestyle to match, not so much neglecting Catherine’s needs but folding her into his plan blindly. He does not tell her about the history of the house, one rife with frightful violence, nor that the young caretaker Eddie (Alex Neustaedter) and his little brother Cole (Jack Gore) lived in the house prior. Instead, he schemes only to progress his career and making terrible, terrible decisions.
One of those is Willis (Natalia Dyer), with whom he has a secret affair, even though she knows who he is and hates herself for doing it. She is also close to Eddie, who himself has become smitten with Catherine, who is now drawn equally to him, soon yielding to her impulse. Meanwhile, there are bumps in the night and glowing lights, and found rings, and bad dreams, and a professor named Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham) who chairs George’s department and knows there are ghosts in the house and urges Catherine to have a seance. There is also Catherine’s new friend Justine Sokolov (Rhea Seehorn), another teacher at the college who can see things are not right with George.
All this leads to a story that is set up like bowling pins with the gutter guards in and a funnel that leads the ball down a single track. While I far better like and will advocate for any day of the week a good psychological horror film over a jump scare ghost story, Things Heard & Seen lacks both. There is a ghost that does very little, yet worse, seems unimportant to the story. The whole thing could have existed and worked without it. And there are no twists or drama built around Catherine’s restoring skills or her eating disorder, other than one can of protein drink that is telegraphed miles ahead. There are so many characters as well, including the rusty old standbys of a realtor (Karen Allen) and local sheriff (Michael O’Keefe) – who are married in this story – to fill in exposition and handily be there for when trouble starts, that they all barely have impact.
I wanted to like this. Seyfried is as always committed and effective, the anchor to the entire film, and the production design and even some of the direction is strong. A good score by Peter Raeburn helps as well, but this is one of the most generic thrillers I’ve seen in a while, uninspired and unimaginative. As an entry level scary movie, this is a paint by numbers effort that some may find fits the streaming bill, and if you’re a Seyfried fan, worth it for her, but all others should move on.