Things Heard & Seen: Always the Caretaker, by David Bax
There’s an ironic employment of what ought to be HGTV fantasy material in the scene in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Things Heard & Seen when when a young couple–Amanda Seyfried’s Catherine and James Norton’s George–first arrive at their new home, a charmingly shabby Hudson Valley farmhouse with “great bones.” But Catherine is less than thrilled by her new digs and, even before the house’s secrets start to bubble up, the intentionally alienating camerawork lets us know she’s right to be cautious and for more reasons than she can even guess yet.
It’s early 1980 and George, having recently finished grad school, has moved Catherine and their daughter out of New York City to accept a professorship at a small but prestigious school. Hints at the house’s dark history give way to realizations that George is keeping more than the fate of the previous owners from Catherine.
Things Heard & Seen may technically take place in the 80s but–this early in the decade and this far from an urban center–it’s still all 1970s browns, greens and yellows. That suits Berman and Pulcini just fine. With cinematographer Larry Smith (who’s done excellent work bringing sinister beauty to previous films like Only God Forgives and Calvary), they drink in the sickliness with wide angles and saturated colors that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gore Verbinski movie.
That sets the atmosphere. The frights, on the other hand, come often from the anti-jump scare, it’s-just-there school of horror. You know, the kind where the camera follows a person walking past a doorway that already has a specter merely standing in it and keeps on going, with the audience having registered the shock and the threat that the character hasn’t yet. Scariness is subjective, of course, but this sort of thing gets me every time, leaving me with goosebumps that last longer than the jolt of a sudden loud noise or what have you.
And then there’s yet another tradition to which Things Heard & Seen belongs. Catherine has an eating disorder, an early clue that this is a film–following in the footsteps of countless others, from Drag Me to Hell to Rosemary’s Baby and even further back–where the deepest horror is that of being a woman in a world that defines you in impossibly restrictive and punitive terms. Catherine’s move from the city to the country was not her idea; as an artist, she’d have preferred to be closer to likeminded folks. But that’s neither the first nor last time she finds herself buffeted by the winds of tradition, culture and–as the house’s spirits beckon her to relive their own traumas–the supernatural.
As is the case with most of the best horror movies, the ghosts and ghouls aren’t really the bad guys here. They’re just what gives the evil that already exists in the world a shape. We don’t even meet all of the house’s ethereal inhabitants; there’s a supremely intriguing suggestion that George is undergoing his own private battle with a different revenant than the one haunting Catherine. Things Heard & Seen might make you wonder if Wendy Torrance had run-ins of her own with the phantoms of the Overlook Hotel that we didn’t see because we were focused on Jack’s story.