If there's one thing that Netflix's Things Heard & Seen shows, it is that the exploration in the horror genre is far from over.
Based on the Elizabeth Brundage novel 'All Things Cease to Appear', the film follows George Claire (James Norton), Catherina Claire (Amanda Seyfried) and their little girl Franny Claire (Ana Sophia Heger), who live a comfortable life in New York.
Soon, George announces that he's landed a job as a professor in Saginaw University, a small private college at an upstate place called Chosen. They move into a big house at Chosen that looks extremely creepy and is a hundred years old at least.
It's the classic horror movie set-up. Cathy and Franny begin to experience an unnatural presence, and George is the typical guy in the horror movie who says, "You are crazy. The house is perfect." Despite such a tried-and-tested setting, Things Heard & Seen slowly shows signs that it may not be as clichéd as it seems.
Cathy realises that the house has seen some very disturbing things and that a kind spirit is trying to protect her. A horror movie with a good ghost? The movie also drops hints to show that George may not be the person we think he is.
Eventually, his darker sides unravel and in quite a brilliant fashion (all credits to the good writing). Cathy, being the interesting character she is (she calls herself "a conflicted Catholic girl at heart who is dutifully going through the motions") knows that something’s not right with George. But that the priority is the haunted house.
She gets much-needed support for her theories from Floyd DeBeers (F Murray Abraham), her husband's boss. We eventually realise that the house is haunted by an evil spirit as well.
From here, things get quite interesting. The film leans on the philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg – a name that is dropped quite often. In fact, the film starts with a quote of his that goes, "This I can declare: things that are in heaven are more real than things that are in the world." The movie states that there’s a portal between the human world and the worlds beyond death.
A ‘guardian angel’ will use the goodness within a human as a portal, while an evil spirit will use the lack of it. The movie also substantiates the quote by portraying an angelic spirit as real, and a character of the real world as an evil fraudster.
The film depicts this theme quite beautifully, and quite artistically. When DeBeers welcomes George at Saginaw, he gifts him a book of Swedenborg, Heaven and the World of Spirits and Hell. The cover art of which is a painting by 19th century painter George Inness called 'The Valley of Shadow of Death', which, as per DeBeers, shows the departure of a soul to heaven.
Macroscopically, the film is a twisted depiction of two painters in their extremes - Thomas Cole and George Inness.
Cole and Inness were both landscape painters and the founders of the Hudson River School art movement. In particular, Cole's The Voyage of Life (the last in his The Voyage of Life series) and Inness' The Valley of Shadow of Death.
These are not just names of paintings dropped, but the climax of the film brings these two paintings – which are similar in their subject and theme – together. George rows his boat on the Hudson, desperate for 'escape'.
However, instead of the cross in Inness’ painting, an upsidedown cross appears in the sky – a symbol of evil. The sky is blood red, like in Cole’s painting, which very much mirrors his quote, "Sky is the soul of all scenery."
In a way, it is the spirit of art itself that haunts George, for his treachery to the subject he claims to hold so dearly. A look at Elizabeth Brundage’s novel and into the lives of Thomas Cole and George Inness might reveal why two characters in the film are also named Cole and George.
Things Heard & Seen might at first look like The Shining meeting The Conjuring, however, it does have depth. Moreover, the performances and music are excellent.
Given that it is based on a book, the writers may have been creatively restrained to an extent, but the problem lies with the screenplay itself. It builds up to extremely obvious reveals and is filled with cliché horror tropes.
Things Heard & Seen may not fulfil the ‘scary’ expectations of a horror film, but on closer look, it seems like it wasn’t supposed to. Why should all horror films have jump scares, gnarly demons and eerie VFX ghosts?
Director: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, James Norton, Natalia Dyer, F Murray Abraham
Streaming on: Netflix