I’ll say this much for “Things Heard & Seen”: it absolutely lives up to its name. If, out of curiosity or inertia, you let your Netflix algorithm have its way for two hours, you will definitely hear and see some things, though you may have trouble afterward remembering just what those things were.
The movie, 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, though perhaps not as cinematic. In any case, the person doing most of the seeing and hearing is Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried), who has left New York City and moved into an old farmhouse in the Hudson Valley with her husband, George (James Norton), and their young daughter, Franny (Ana Sophia Heger).
What happens up there might be taken as a cautionary tale for those who fled the city during the pandemic, or as an invitation to schadenfreude for those who didn’t. Not that “Things Heard & Seen” insists on relevance. It takes place in 1980, and as in many modern thrillers, the period setting seems mainly to be a matter of technology. Back then, there were no Google image searches, no weather apps and no Zillow listings. It was a good time to be a ghost.
And, apparently, a bad time to be married to a professor of art history at a small liberal-arts college. George is a smug nugget of preppy pretension who has recently completed a dissertation on the painters of the Hudson River School. That lands him a gig at Saginaw College, and Catherine leaves behind her career as an art restorer to follow him there.
The department chair (F. Murray Abraham) is a devotee of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish mystic much admired by 19th-century American intellectuals. Among his followers was the landscape painter George Inness, a subject of George Claire’s research.
These references add an overlay of cultural seriousness to an unsuspenseful and secondhand psychological haunted-house thriller. Shortly after their arrival, Catherine starts, well, hearing and seeing things. An old Bible appears on a shelf. The piano starts playing itself. Franny’s night light behaves strangely, and a spectral woman lurks in the shadows of her room. There’s also the smell of car exhaust in the middle of the night.
The house, it turns out, had previously been the scene of marital unhappiness and possible murder, both in the 1800s and more recently. As George reveals himself to be a cheater, a gaslighter and an all-around sociopath, it looks as though the Claires might be headed in that direction, too.
Which should be more interesting than it is. As should the college-town setting, which is a hive of badly kept secrets and barely controlled lust, with a population that includes some very fine character actors (Rhea Seehorn, James Urbaniak and Karen Allen in addition to Abraham). There are also two attractive targets for the Claires’ roving eyes: Alex Neustaedter, as a hunky handyman, and Natalia Dyer, as a Cornell student taking a leave of absence 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 naughtiness, Pulcini and Berman lurch from one scene to the next, squandering scares and undermining the momentum of the story. There should be more to see here.
Things Heard & Seen
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. Watch on Netflix.