Anna Kooris/NETFLIX James Norton and Amanda Seyfried in 'Things Heard and Seen'
At some point in the journey from page to screen, a novel called All Things Cease to Appear has become the movie Things Heard & Seen — an odd and arbitrary little tweak of the title, maybe, but one that makes a literal sort of sense, because there is almost nothing in the horror-genre handbook that is not crammed within its two-hour runtime.
Co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor, Ten Thousand Saints) at least have the gift of a stylized circa-1980 setting and two talented stars, recent Best Supporting Actress nominee Amanda Seyfried and The Nevers' James Norton, to anchor their atmospheric tale of a young couple's fateful move from Manhattan to a verdant postcard village populated, as one bystander wryly puts it, by "rich horsey weekenders and lots of full-time rednecks."
So far, so Amityville. But the film (on Netflix beginning Thursday) can't seem to find a storytelling mode that doesn't feel like unintentional camp or mere cobweb-dreary cliché: Blood puddles and oozes; flickering apparitions appear like lost TED Talk holograms; everything that can — chairs, axe handles, transistor radios — will go bump in the night. It takes approximately 15 minutes until someone (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, what is he doing here?) lightly suggests a séance; a full exorcism may have been a better use of everyone's time.
As the perfunctory setup swiftly tells us, Norton's George Claire is a struggling PhD candidate who has managed to land a job at the bucolic if academically unspectacular Saginaw College. His wary wife Catherine (Seyfried), an art restorer, gamely follows with their 5-year-old daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger), and even finds two local boys, orphaned brothers Eddy and Cole (Alex Neustaedter and Jack Gore) to take on custodial duties around their new home.
The price the brothers quote for their services is a bargain, and so is the sprawling 19th-century house. Though something about the ghostly piano cords, persistent smell of gas, and ancient family Bible stamped with ink-stained proclamations of the damned suggests there's a reason for that. Still, Catherine manages to make a new friend on the faculty, adjunct weaving instructor and walking B.S. detector Justine (Better Call Saul's nicely acidic Rhea Seehorn), while George — the kind of man whose callow charms seem to work best on small children and coeds — forges his own clandestine connection with a local girl (Stranger Things' Natalie Dyer).
All of these familiar beats might have found some tension to build on if every character trait and plot turn weren't already so clumsily foreshadowed, or blatantly spelled out: the unhappy, eating-disordered wife; the handsome but faithless husband; the spectral presence that stops just short of rattling its Scooby Doo chains to get noticed. (Though there's a more intriguing Marriage Story in there somewhere for Seyfried and Norton, if only Berman's lead-footed script would let them tell it.) Instead the movie marches on in grim, silly lockstep to its themes: a compendium of jump-scare terrors almost exhaustively heard and seen, but rarely calibrated to make you feel much of anything at all. Grade: C+
Amanda Seyfried and James Norton on the ghosts, gaslighting, and challenges of Things Heard & Seen