It’s safe to assume any movie that opens with a quote from 17th century pluralistic-Christian theologian (and big time spiritualist) Emanuel Swedenborg has a lot on its mind, and so it’s no surprise that Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s “Things Heard & Seen” isn’t the straightforward horror story that’s suggested by its ominous flash-forward of an opening scene. Indeed, Swedenborg’s insistence that “things that are in heaven are more real than things that are in the world” hovers over the first hour of this strange movie like a gentle hand on your shoulder, as if to say “don’t be afraid of this haunted old house in the Hudson Valley. Just because it comes with a ghost or two and a smattering of half-hearted jump-scares doesn’t mean that it’s evil. Amanda Seyfried could’ve had that freaky nightmare about pulling a weird alien fetus out of the kitchen sink anywhere.”
Lest audiences not trust that spectral reassurance in a film that often feels like it’s cosplaying as yet another “Conjuring” spinoff, a serene F. Murray Abraham shows up as a Swedenborg super-fan just to glorify death as “a grand passage” and reiterate the warm and fuzzy vibe in more explicit terms. Terrible things may be in store for Catherine (Seyfried) when she agrees to forsake Morningside Heights for a 200-acre farm upstate so that her sniveling husband George (James Norton) can take a professorship at the small liberal arts college that agreed to hire him, but such tragedies can’t necessarily be ascribed to the notorious house George buys with his parents’ money. In this bizarre and unsteady yet broadly entertaining Netflix adaptation of Elizabeth Brundage’s 2016 novel “All Things Cease to Appear,” the house is just a vessel for the energy that its new owners bring into it — the true horror is coming from inside their marriage.
Wobbling between Henry James and Philip Roth on its way to a schlockier final hour that ditches the literary veneer of its first half and strains to transmute the ambiguities of Brundage’s writing into dramatic action, “Things Heard & Seen” might be simplest to categorize as a horror movie about the perils of living in fear. Catherine and George have both suffered from their own private terrors ever since an unplanned pregnancy spurred an uncertain marriage (their young daughter Franny is played by Ana Sophia Heger), but he stays ahead of his demons while she merely hides from hers.
The film is set in 1980, a magical time when square-jawed white academics were still encouraged to swindle the world into giving them whatever they wanted. A newly minted Columbia PhD who pivots from painting to writing to teaching as if he were running a Ponzi scheme for his own medium talents, George is even more petrified of his mediocrity than we imagine at the start of the movie, while Catherine — a respected art restorer whose Christian faith is more latent than lapsed — doesn’t seem to hear the self-negation in her voice when she tells a friend that she “owes it” to her husband to sacrifice her career as kindling for his. She purges such doubts in the bathroom rather than air them in public. Besides, why waste your time patching up historic churches when you can spend all day fixing the windows of some decrepit old dairy farm whose cash-strapped previous owner committed murder-suicide when the economy soured?
But George keeps those morbid details from his wife; he insists that women are too fragile to handle such things, even if his casual misogyny and his eagerness to buy the first house he finds both seem like they’re disguising a deeper anxiety. And so “Things Heard & Seen” settles into Catherine’s POV as she learns about the previous tenants at her own speed, a process that includes a cryptic piece of sheet music, visions of a woman in black, and the discovery of a list of the people who’ve died in her new home (one entry reads “DAMNED” in demonic cursive).
These incidents are all endowed with a familiar tension, but Berman and Pulcini — whose previous experience with horror is limited to the scenes between Harvey Pekar and David Letterman in “American Splendor” — seem afraid of turning the screws too tight. While certain sequences condition you to hold your breath, the film’s genre-blurring source material compels its directors to resist a more pervasive sense of malevolent dread. The lights flicker, the hunky handyman next door (Alex Neustaedter) is introduced with a hint of menace, and Catherine keeps finding creepy relics around the house, but there’s little threat of immediate danger from whatever happens to be going bump in the night.
The emphasis on Catherine puzzling out the house’s past grows tedious as it becomes clear that she has more to fear from her husband, and while Seyfried acquits herself and then some, an actor of her talent is wasted on a character that spends most of the movie just connecting the dots. With “First Reformed” still fresh in mind, it’s hard not to wish that Berman and Pulcini — a married couple themselves — had leaned harder into how Catherine’s awakens as she loses faith in her husband. The same husband who’s busy slurping up attention from his female students even before he starts a very unhealthy affair with a twentysomething girl (ultra-believable “Stranger Things” star Natalia Dyer) who seduces him with a single Caravaggio reference and sees through all of the deceitful horseshit that makes her want to have sex with him in the first place. If Willis knew the actual limit of George’s deceit, she might have been less turned on by the thought of exposing his emptiness.
A savory ham of an actor who’s never afraid to make full use of a handsome face that begs to be kissed or punched depending on how the light hits it, Norton does an expert job of steering George from chauvinism to sociopathy, but “Things Heard & Seen” is so eager for the character to become an emblem of mediocrity in crisis that it isolates him into an undercooked Patricia Highsmith riff that seems completely separate from what’s going on with Catherine (even if those threads couldn’t be more intertwined). “He’s just afraid,” someone diagnoses George. “Men at his stage of life always are.” And that fear — half-sketched but all too easy to trace — eventually becomes a tomb for several of the people unlucky enough to get in its way.
But while the movie keeps returning to the idea of death as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, it never finds a way to connect the two sides of the story it’s telling, which ultimately defangs them both. As the final stretch of “Things Heard & Seen” evokes everything from “Hereditary” to “A Place in the Sun” and even “The House that Jack Built” as it scrambles to close the gap that forms an irreconcilable distance between Catherine and George, Berman and Pulcini’s movie feels as if it’s more haunted by unrealized potential than anything else.
“Things Heard & Seen” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, April 30.