Producers: Anthony Bergman, Stefanie Azpiazu, Peter Cron and Julie Cohen Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini Screenplay: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini Cast: Amanda Seyfried, James Norton, Natalia Dyer, Alex Neustaedter, Rhea Seehorn, Michael O’Keefe, Karen Allen, Jack Gore, James Urbaniak, Ana Sophia Heger and F. Murray Abraham Distributor: Netflix
Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 novel “All Things Cease to Appear” has become a curious film thriller, a weird ghost story that turns into a threatened-wife movie suitable for the Lifetime Network. “Things Heard & Seen,” as writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have retitled it, is pretty much bonkers, but perhaps it can serve to introduce viewers to Emanuel Swedenborg and George Innes.
The former was an eighteenth-century Swedish mystic and the latter a nineteenth-century American landscape painter influenced by his thought. Both come into play when George and Catherine Claire (James Norton and Amanda Seyfried), along with their young daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger), move from New York City upstate.
The year in 1979, and George, a recent Ph.D. in art history, has taken a job in a small liberal arts college in Hudson Valley, though Catherine is less than overjoyed at the idea of leaving Manhattan. Nonetheless she settles into the old house George has chosen for them as best she can.
George’s popularity as a teacher pleases his department chair Dr. DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), a devotee of Innes, as well of Swedenborg, whose works George had discussed peripherally in his dissertation. Catherine’s experience is not so pleasant. She feels the presence of a spirit in the house—one that also visits Franny in “Poltergeist” style. She connects the apparition with the wife of the preacher who built the house, a woman who suffered mistreatment at her husband’s hand. George is not convinced, and grows annoyed at mother and daughter.
The couple also becomes romantically involved with other people. For Catherine it’s Eddy (Alex Neustaedter), a young man from town she hires as a handyman, along with his younger brother Cole (Jack Gore). For George it’s Willis (Natalia Dyer), a young woman he meets at the library and soon visits at the stables where she works. She also, as it happens, knows Eddy.
Matters grow even more complicated when Catherine learns that the house was previously owned by Eddy and Cole’s parents, and that their abusive father murdered his wife before committing suicide. She’s furious that George knew about the place’s past history and failed to tell her.
So whose spirit is haunting the house—or are there more than one? That question fascinates DeBeers, whose devotion to Swedenborg’s ideas on life and death leads him to conduct a séance there. But the professor is diverted from his attention to that issue by another involving his department’s staff, which leads to a tragic outcome not just for himself but also for others. In the process dark secrets from the past are also disclosed.
This is undeniably complicated, but more importantly it’s terribly silly, and the denouement—indicated, as is often the case nowadays, in a short prologue—verges on the ludicrous in its attempt to bring justice to bear.
Nonetheless the film has been handsomely mounted: Lester Cohen’s atmospheric production design, along with some attractive locations, are well captured in Larry Smith’s cinematography, and although the editing by Louise Ford and Andrew Mondshein doesn’t always succeed in keeping the plot twists ideally clear, the fault is hardly theirs. Peter Raeburn’s moody score is a good complement.
The cast work hard to put the material across, with Norton is particular holding nothing back. Seyfried plays his increasingly agitated wife to the hilt as well, while veteran Abraham underplays nicely, though his naturally sinister edge is unavoidable. Among the others Neustaedter and Dyer come off best, though Rhea Seehorn has a showier part as an aggressive colleague of George’s described as a weaving instructor. (The school must have an ample budget to support such a position.) Veterans Michael O’Keefe and Karen Allen appear briefly as the local sheriff and his wife.
This is a polished but rather nutty horror movie with pretensions about saying something concerning the mistreatment of women through the centuries. It has a few nastily scary moments, but on balance is probably better neither seen nor heard.