I will say the same for “Things Heard & Seen”: it lives up to its name. If, out of curiosity or inertia, you let your Netflix algorithm work its way for two hours, you will certainly hear and see some things, although you may have trouble remembering what those things were afterwards.
The film, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, is based on a novel by Elizabeth Brundage called “All Things Cease to Appear,” which is a more intriguing title, but perhaps not as cinematic. Either way, the person who sees and hears the most is Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried), who left New York City and moved into a former farmhouse in the Hudson Valley with her husband, George (James Norton), and their young. daughter, Franny (Ana Sophia Heger).
What is happening up there could be seen as a cautionary tale for those who fled the city during the pandemic, or as an invitation to schadenfreude for those who haven’t. Not that “Things Heard & Seen” insists on relevance. It’s set in 1980, and like many modern thrillers, the period setting seems to be mostly about technology. Back then, there was no Google image search, no weather app, and no Zillow listings. It was a good time to be a ghost.
And, apparently, a bad time to marry an art history professor at a small liberal arts college. George is a smug nugget of preppy pretension who recently completed a thesis on painters at the Hudson River School. This earned him a concert at Saginaw College, and Catherine gave up her career as an art restorer to follow him there.
The head of the department (F. Murray Abraham) is a follower of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish mystic much admired by 19th century American intellectuals. Among his disciples was the landscape painter George Inness, the subject of George Claire’s research.
These references add a layering of cultural seriousness to an insane, second-hand haunted house psychological thriller. Shortly after their arrival, Catherine finally begins to hear and see things. An old Bible appears on a shelf. The piano begins to play on its own. Franny’s nightlight behaves strangely and a spectral woman hides in the shadow of her bedroom. There is also a smell of car exhaust in the middle of the night.
It turns out the house had once been the scene of marital misfortune and possible murder, both in the 1800s and more recently. As George is revealed to be a cheater, gas lighter, and all-round sociopath, it looks like the Claires might be heading in that direction as well.
Which should be more interesting than it is. Much like the college town setting, which is a hive of poorly kept secrets and barely controlled lust, with a population that includes some really good character actors (Rhea Seehorn, James Urbaniak and Karen Allen in addition to Abraham) . There are also two attractive targets for the Claires’ traveling eyes: Alex Neustaedter, as a handyman, and Natalia Dyer, as a Cornell student taking time off to train horses.
But “Things Heard & Seen” is less than the sum of its potentially intriguing parts. Rather than interweaving domestic drama, supernatural mumbo-jumbo, and campus villainy, Pulcini and Berman move from scene to scene, squandering scares and undermining the story’s momentum. There should be more to see here.
Things Heard and Seen
Unclassified. Duration: 1 hour 59 minutes. Watch on Netflix.