For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
THE FOLLOWING ESSAY CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS
Things Heard & Seen is an American horror thriller film written and directed by the married dynamic duo of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini of American Splendor fame. It’s based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, who worked on the script with Berman and Pulcini. The film stars too-too thin Amanda Seyfried and Grantchester’s likable James Norton.
The movie has a rather old-fashioned feel, with the first half moving slowly and the second half gathering momentum toward the finale. It’s not super-scary, nor does it have many moments where you think, “I didn’t see that coming.” A lot of reviewers didn’t care for it, but I really liked it. I love spiritualism, I know a bit about psychology, transcendentalism, feminist history, and the Hudson River School of painters, and I know it’s common for folks in the Northeast to believe old houses can be haunted by comforting and / or evil spirits. All those elements of the story made me enjoy this film more than most people might.
The film opens on a quote from Swedish theologist Emanuel Swedenborg: “This I can declare … things that are in heaven are more real than things that are in the world.” Swedenborg believed that physical human beings have a spiritual counterpart that remains in the physical world after the physical human being has died. The ghost story and psychological elements of the film rely on Swedenborg’s theology and on paintings by George Inness, some of which are visible throughout the film. Inness was a devotee of Swedenborg’s beliefs. Inness’s painting, Valley of the Shadow of Death, depicting a soul ascending to heaven with a cross of light shining above, was inspired by Swedenborg. The painting was even used on the cover of a modern printing of Swedenborg’s book, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen. The film takes its title from that book title, and both the painting and the book are significant in the film. The Italian painter Caravaggio — an infamous murderer known for portraits and paintings of gruesome scenes — also plays a minor but telling part in the film.
In the film’s opening scenes, set in 1980, we understand that something scary and bad has happened in an old house. The film then cuts back a few months, into 1979, and we meet married art academics Catherine and George Claire and their daughter, Franny (Ana Sophia Heger), who live in Manhattan. George has just finished his Ph.D.; we later learn he used to paint but changed his academic focus to art history. Catherine has a job she loves in art restoration.
Two things are clear immediately: Catherine has an eating disorder that is her only way of expressing control in her life, and George is a narcissist whose needs take precedence over Catherine’s. When George lands a job teaching at a small college in Chosen, New York, they move into a large, centuries-old farmhouse that George selected without Catherine. Karen Allen, of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame, plays the local realtor Mare Laughton; she’s both underused and excellent in this minor supporting role. You’ll notice Michael O’Keefe quietly playing Mare’s husband, Travis.
Catherine and Franny both have issues with their new home. Franny’s terrified at night by the appearance of a ghost lady in her bedroom and she starts sleeping with her parents. George gets Franny’s prescription sleep aid filled; there’s no explanation as to why little Franny has a refillable sedative prescription, mind you. But Catherine doesn’t want Franny to take it. Catherine herself senses an evil “otherworldly” presence in the house. In addition, she’s virtually stopped eating and feels terribly isolated. She knows no one in Chosen and she has no job, in contrast with George, who has made friends among his colleagues at the college.
When brothers Eddie and Cole Lucks (Alex Neustaedter and Jack Gore, respectively) knock on the door and offer their services as farmhands (and Cole as babysitter), she hires them. Cole is a teenager, but he becomes friends with Franny and often babysits her while George is at work. Eddie’s somewhere in his mid-20s. Eddie and Catherine feel a mutual attraction, but as the movie progresses, neither act upon their feelings.
Catherine finds an old Bible belonging to the previous owners, the Vayles, that includes marriages, births, and deaths of Vayle family members. The word Damned is written by the scratched-out name of a Vayle wife, and Catherine believes the woman’s spirit is both Franny’s ghost lady and is the evil presence she herself has sensed. Catherine finds a mysterious antique ring that she believes belonged to the dammed Vayle woman; inexplicably drawn to the ring, Catherine begins wearing it.
George is annoyed by and scoffs at Catherine’s and Franny’s “haunted house” attitudes and he chooses to sleep in Franny’s bed. His condescendingly paternalistic behavior toward Catherine worsens, as his emotional and psychological abuse tactics intensify. He uses her eating disorder against her, accusing her of failing to overcome it — she hasn’t been drinking her doctor-advised weight-gaining drink — and invalidating her sixth-sense experiences by attributing them to her lack of eating. Even though Catherine can’t see George clearly yet, we’re realizing that George’s narcissistic personality disorder is in fact malignant narcissism.
At the college, George and Floyd DeBeers (F. Murray Abraham), the head of the art history department, become friendly despite the fact that Floyd is a big believer in Swedenborg’s beliefs. He tells George that the part of George’s dissertation on the connection between Swedenborg and Inness was what got George the job at the college, and he gives George a copy of Swedenborg’s book Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen. George is all smiles, politely thanking him while simultaneously saying he doesn’t share in Floyd’s admiration of Swedenborg. George invites Floyd to stop by the house and meet Catherine. Floyd also feels a “presence” at the house and, outside of George’s earshot, assures Catherine that the spirit is benevolent. He also offers to hold a séance there with his séance group. Catherine agrees, but says they’ll need to wait until George is out of town sometime.
One of George’s colleagues, Justine Sokolov (Rhea Seehorn), invites the Claires to dinner. Justine is an “adjunct weaving professor,” a job title that’s amusingly literal and metaphorical to the story. She and Catherine become friends, but George discourages their budding friendship once he realizes Justine knows he’s having an affair with Willis (Natalia Dyer), a female student who is friends with Eddie. George and Catherine throw a party, inviting George’s colleagues and spouses, and some neighbors, including realtor Mare and the Lucks brothers.
During the party, Catherine finds out from George’s sister, Audrey (Kristin Griffith), that George had a cousin who drowned in a boating accident. The cousin was a gifted painter. When Audrey describes his paintings, Catherine realizes George has been passing them off for years as his own work. She also finds out from Mare that the previous owners of the house were Eddie and Cole’s parents: The house is where their father killed their mother, Ella, and then himself.
After the party, Catherine confronts George about his dead cousin’s paintings and the house’s history of violence. They argue, and as he is yelling at her, the radio begins blaring. George unplugs it but it continues to play. In a rage, George destroys it. Catherine asks George to leave and take Franny to his parents’ house because of her nighttime fears. Catherine is finally starting to see the real George. While George and Franny are gone, Floyd’s séance group holds a séance at the house. The ghost of Ella appears; Catherine realizes she is Franny’s ghost lady (Emily Dorsch) and that Ella is a protective spirit, not an evil one.
Floyd warns Catherine there is another spirit in the house; Catherine realizes the other spirit must be the evil one she has sensed. The séance group explains to Catherine that ghosts are guardian angels and / or spiritual guides, and that evil ones cannot enter a house unless evil is already there. That’s the one scene in the film that really doesn’t work. The camera goes around the table settling on the face of each séance group member as they joyously deliver rather ridiculous expository dialogue about the nature of spirits. It comes off as the writers lacking faith in their own storytelling.
Once George is back at home, he begins to sense and hear a male presence, presumably the other spirit in the house. Just as Catherine feels a bond with Ella’s spirit, George bonds with this one. It’s clear that what George sees and hears encourages his own evil nature to flourish.
On a college class trip to Manhattan, George runs into his dissertation adviser. He is surprised that George is teaching; we learn he refused to write a letter of recommendation for George. It’s clear he’s going to report to George to Floyd. Justine overhears some of their conversation and asks George about it, but he just blows her off. While George is away on the class trip, Catherine learns about George’s affair with Willis and confronts Eddie about his parentage, thinking it odd that he and Cole are willing to work as manual laborers at their family’s ancestral home. Eddie explains that he and Cole changed their last name after their parents’ murder-suicide and that they are content to work at the house and be her friends. Catherine tries to give Eddie the ring she now knows was his mother’s, but Eddie wants her to keep it. Exhausted from not eating and the stress of George’s lies, Catherine gives in to her attraction to Eddie, and they passionately, um, embrace.
Back at the college, Floyd confronts George, who admits he forged the letter of recommendation. Floyd tells him he’s scheduled a meeting with the college’s administration to report George’s deceit. George begs Floyd to first meet with him alone, because he “had good reasons” for forging the letter, and Floyd reluctantly agrees. The day before they are supposed to meet, George accidentally-on-purpose finds Floyd at the dock about to take out his boat for one last sail before winter. George genially mentions how much he misses sailing and Floyd graciously invites him along, saying that they can have their meeting on the boat. Ah, predictable cinematic foreboding: We know how George’s talented cousin died. As they sail, George tells Floyd the reasons he forged the letter of recommendation but it’s clear he’s making them up; he realizes he cannot dissuade Floyd from reporting him. Predictably, the film cuts to George walking home completely soaked. At home, Catherine sees George putting his wet clothes in the washing machine.
The rest of the movie moves more quickly. Willis, who has realized George is dangerously nuts, packs in a rush, vaguely telling Eddie she needs to get away. Justine learns about George’s affair with Willis and confronts him, at which point George runs her off the road. She survives but falls into a coma. In George’s art history class, an image of the Inness painting on the cover of Swedenborg’s book is inexplicably the only slide projected in his presentation.
At home, Catherine learns of Floyd’s death and Justine’s accident over the radio, and realizes George is responsible for both. She packs to leave with Franny but is interrupted by George. They argue, and he stomps off downstairs when Catherine insists she’s leaving. Feeling empowered, Catherine drinks one of her weight-gaining drinks, not realizing George has doped it with Franny’s sedative. Catherine loses consciousness on their bed. George returns to the bedroom, axe in hand, and murders her. Now the opening scenes of the movie make sense: The something scary and bad in the old house is Catherine’s mutilated body in the upstairs bedroom.
At this point, you might wonder: What the hell? I mean, our heroine, like her spirit guide, has been murdered. Hang in there; all will be revealed.
After the murder, George goes to work, instructing babysitter Cole not to disturb Catherine, claiming she is ill and sleeping upstairs. Franny is asleep on the couch, as George has also sedated her. The next scene is both poignant and gruesome: Poor Cole, innocently watching television with Franny’s unconscious body on the opposite couch while Catherine’s hacked-up body lies dead upstairs, her blood dripping through the floor into the garage below. Cole leaves at his usual time, softly calling out a confused goodbye up the stairs to Catherine.
Once George returns, the rest of the film’s opening scenes make sense; George has created his alibi. The police chief suspects he is responsible for Catherine’s death but has no proof. Catherine’s spirit joins forces with Ella’s, and they awaken Justine from her coma, giving her visions of everything George has done. Justine tells the police everything. George tries to escape in his dead cousin’s sailboat. A gathering storm intensifies and suddenly a fiery hole opens up in the ocean, swallowing George and the boat. The scene dissolves into an opposing version of the Inness painting we’ve seen throughout the film; the painting, now a seascape with fiery waves and a glowing inverted cross, is of a soul descending into Hell.
Things Heard & Seen has gorgeous scenery and sets, and the entire cast is easily recognizable from other work. There’s a good score by Peter Raeburn that is both subtle and effective. The supernatural elements are borderline cheesy: the ghost lady rocking in an old rocking chair in a child’s bedroom at night; flickering lights and the buzz of electricity; the radio emitting static; and wispy lights gliding about here and there. The movie presents as a standard ghost story / psychological thriller, marching through its horror story paces inexorably, and the script isn’t perfect. Still, there’s an interesting depth to this film due to the theological and artistic motifs and psychological elements. For example, I liked that the filmmakers chose to have Catherine literally see supernatural presences but fail to see the truth about her husband until it’s too late.
Seyfried and Norton do the heavy lifting in making this movie work, with help from supporting actors who are well-cast and entertaining. Seyfried has publicly acknowledged that she suffers from anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks and stage fright. Her role as Catherine must have been both challenging and, perhaps, rewarding. She gives depth to a rather stereotypical character, evolving from a doormat-like woman who doesn’t see her husband’s many deceptions to a more confident woman able to confront his dark side.
Unfortunately, Seyfried’s character is killed by the psycho-evil husband, and you might think, “What’s the point of this movie? An evil man has won again!” However, justice prevails in the end, through Catherine’s strong spirit and Swedenborg’s theology, and George Claire goes straight to hell in a hand basket … er, well, a sailboat. Those last moments are not technically well filmed, but the scene does tie up artistic threads woven into the script by combining the two Inness paintings we’ve seen in the film; it’s an art-comes-to-life scene. I doubt many will agree with me when I say Norton’s lack of emoting as George faces his oceanic demise is perfect, but it is: A malignant narcissist would not ever believe he was actually facing his doom, and that’s exactly what Norton portrays. I was sad in 2019 when Norton left Grantchester, wondering what he’d do next. I thought he was perfect as John Brooke in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women, but it wasn’t really a big part for Norton. My anticipation for seeing Things Heard & Seen was bolstered by the fact that he plays the lead male character. Norton’s portrayal of affable charmer-harmer George Claire is spot-on; his ability to smile winningly while simultaneously exuding the “evil that men do” chilled me to the bone several times and caused me a rather sleepless night.
Both Seyfried and Norton make this movie work; without them, it probably wouldn’t be quite so satisfying or effective. Perhaps Pulcini and Berman overplayed the artwork and mysticism of Inness and Swedenborg a bit, but then again: How often do I get to watch a movie that combines my loves of art and the supernatural? This film is a good viewing choice for No Sleep October; snuggle up on your cozy couch one dark evening and watch it. I think you’ll like it, too.