What Makes “Good” Art, Part II

Last post, I looked at a movie that had such a terrible ending, I was angry at myself for watching it when it was all said and done. Today, I will be analyzing a haunted house movie that I thought was, overall, extremely well done. Things Heard & Seen is the haunted house movie that I would recommend, and that I would consider “good” art, despite the things about the movie that I did not much appreciate.

So, what makes Things Heard & Seen “good” art?

Well…. for one thing, I have my own unique experiences and perspective, and I like it. Concepts of “good” and “bad” are entirely subjective, and while I think you’re wrong if you don’t agree with me, I am a technically biased person who thinks her taste in media is pretty damn good. I’m also unflinchingly honest, and will tell you if I personally like something but I don’t think it’s very good and don’t necessarily recommend.

So let’s get to our story – FYI, this post will be replete with spoilers, so if you have not seen the movie yet or are averse to discussion that includes spoilers for some reason, feel free to just “like” my blog post and go live your life.

One thing that Things Heard & Seen does really well is take a seemingly normal situation and make it absolutely horrific. There are some supernatural aspects that make the movie a true “Haunted House” movie (unlike the movie we talked about last week), but the actual horror in the movie is not because of the house. It is because of the evil that can exist within people, and that does exist within one specific character in the movie.

The movie opens with George Claire pulling into the garage to have blood drip onto his car. You know it’s a haunted house movie, so you wonder if ghosts are fucking with him, but don’t really know for certain. He walks into the house, and comes upon his daughter, who is standing and looking out of the window, bathed in ethereal light, which is creepy, because let’s face it – children are terrifying. The scene cuts to George fleeing the house, holding his daughter in his arms.

What a fucking clever beginning.

The beginning immediately pulls the viewer in, and brings up so many questions. What is going on? Is the house haunted? Is the daughter okay? It creates the lens that George is the hero of the story – a man living through the presumable terror of the haunted house, and protecting his daughter when things get out of hand… who doesn’t root for that?

A monster, that’s who.

No, of course not. As it turns out… George Claire is.

The way that the writers subtly bring out truths that slant the story in a completely different light is so well done. What at first seems to be simply a dysfunctional marriage that is likely either going to be resolved or end in a bitter divorce when the family experiences the haunted house turns out to be something else entirely.

After the intriguing beginning, the movie jumps back in time, and we meet the third member of the Claire family – wife and mother Catherine. The compliment on her thin figure, the fact that she barely eats any cake, and then throws it up, initially makes it seem as though Catherine has an eating disorder. We see her working a dream job for someone with an art degree – restoring some beautiful artwork in a church, and talking to her friend about how she needs to support George, who has given up so much for her, by moving out to the country (Saginaw, which I think in this movie is still supposed to be in NY and not the Saginaw I think of in MI). And as the viewer, you’re scared for her and her family, because they’re moving to a haunted house, and you’re thinking, “Man, if you weren’t moving to a terrifying haunted house, this would be the right move for you, because you’re obviously stressed or something and getting away from this negative influence will be good.”

As it turns out, as the viewer, you are so, so wrong.

#sowrong

In a phone conversation midway through the movie, Catherine’s mother mentions that she is “so lucky” that George “did the right thing by her…” It has already been established by this point that Catherine was raised Catholic, so… we know what that means. But it gets worse. George takes one of his classes on a field trip to a museum (he’s teaching art), and one of his previous professors starts asking questions, like “Why are they calling you professor?” and “I was surprised you got this position, given that I refused to write you a letter of recommendation” and something along the lines of “you were blacklisted for inappropriate behavior with a student…”

Suddenly, the fact that Catherine avoids taking food or drink from her husband, when at all possible, takes on a completely different light. It helps that this movie takes place in the past – people would like to think that the ’80s is modern enough that domestic violence and date rape were looked down on… but actually, while people didn’t necessarily advocate for either of these things, most people just ignored it or looked the other way. Cops back then just stayed out of it, even if they were called, because it was a matter for the family to resolve. So a woman being drugged by the man she was dating, ending up pregnant, and marrying the asshole because her strict Catholic upbringing says that is what she is supposed to do if he is willing to “do the right thing” is a lot more terrifying because it is a lot more believable. I’m not saying this situation couldn’t occur today – but an open-minded woman like Catherine is going to have a lot more resources in 2021 as opposed to the 1980s, where a “he-said/she-said” is probably going to favor the “he,” unless this is an episode of 21 Jumpstreet where Harry was erroneously accused of knocking the girl up because she thought he was just some guy her age who had moved out of town and couldn’t be found.

Most girls weren’t lucky enough to have an officer Judy Hoffs to help.

There are all of these tiny details sprinkled throughout the movie that add to the horror that is George Claire, and you really feel for Catherine, particularly when she discovers that the one thing she loved about her husband – his skill as a painter, which included these amazing paintings he has hung up in his office – is actually his gay cousin, who coincidentally committed suicide, because being gay is not always easy and it was even more difficult in the ’80s. So not only is her husband a rapist monster who has taken her away from her friends and family to a secluded community where she’s expected to perform only the womanly duties of cleaning and caring for their daughter; the way he caught any of her attention in the first place was the result of lies and purloined paintings.

His natural inclination to do whatever it takes to get what he wants is strengthened by the malevolent male spirits of other assholes who have lived in the house previously and whose wives “mysteriously died.” There are female spirits of the woman who were murdered, as well, and the inevitable result of living in the house comes to fruition in a brutal scene where Catherine is, again, drugged by her husband, begs the spirits to help her, and they explain to her that she cannot fight her fate, but they will supposedly get justice in the end…

This bullshit didn’t work so well for me – like, what about the women who have already been murdered in the house? The entire town knows they were probably murdered, but no one can prove it, and it seems their terrible husbands just continued to live until their terrible lives came to a fairly normal end. But for some reason, we’re supposed to think George will be caught, because he ran Catherine’s friend and his co-worker off of the road and the dead women of the house awake this friend/co-worker from a coma.

How is that “justice?” Is George going to pay by going to prison? Is that really balancing the scales of justice when he brutally murdered his wife with a fucking ax? Ooh… he doesn’t get to spend time corrupting his daughter with his terrible influence, he gets a roof over his head, and three meals a day, and fucking recess…. Yeah, he’s really going to “learn his lesson.”

Not to mention, the friend/co-worker didn’t really see much, so it is difficult to believe that her testimony is going to put anyone away in prison.

So what’s probably really going to happen is she’s going to be like, “I told George I was keeping an eye on him, and knew he was having an affair, and then I got run off the road. I’m pretty sure it was George.”

And the cops will say, “Oh, did you see George?”

And she will say, “No. But it has to be him.”

And the cops will say, “Oh… could you at least tell it was his car?”

And she will say, “Well… no…. I just saw headlights. But it was, for real, definitely him.”

And the cops will say, “How do you know it was, for real, definitely him? Keep in mind – you have a vagina, and the words you say only hold 32% of the weight of a person with a penis. And that’s high, because you teach in a college, you get a higher % because we kind of think you have some dude-like qualities.”

And she cries, because she’s terrified, and says, “I just do! Are you telling me he’s just going to get away with it after he tried to kill me?”

And the cops will say to her husband, “Ugh, can you take care of this? You’re wife’s getting hysterical!”

See?! Even Lady Justice is skeptical…

So, there was some bullshit in this movie, for sure. But overall, this movie is terrifying, not so much because the house is haunted, but because people can be monsters who trap innocent people in their web of lies and torture and terrify them before eventually ending them. I’m still spooked.

Witches Burn

“I think I see what you’re going for, but you’re a bit too shabby to be chic, darlin’.” Her mouth was covered in icy pink glimmer, her Southern drawl just noticeable enough to be adorable. If you didn’t know how much evil lurked beneath. Sarah Jane and her gaggle of sorority sisters turned on their heels and sashayed towards the union. Sure, a lot of them would be date raped and enter into soulless marriages, but at the end of the day, most of them were going to graduate with a diamond on the left hand guaranteeing financial security. Their certainty that this was the case lifted their chins with the posture of a superior being.

Meanwhile, Melody was stuck with her thrift store finds, pretending she preferred a more quirky look when the reality was that she couldn’t afford nice, new clothes. Her fists involuntarily clenched at her sides, nails digging small crescents into the palms of her hands until she felt wetness in addition to pain – the unfairness of it all, “it all” being her “life,” had drawn blood.

She wandered to the library – unlike Sarah Jane and her minions, she was likely going to have to forge her own way in the cold, unfair world, which meant that she should probably keep up her grades. Scholarships tended to care whether or not a student was passing her classes.

Melody stared at the same paragraph in the Malleus Maleficarum for about 20 minutes before she gave up. Why had she wanted to take a class on the Middle Ages, anyway? The people were ridiculous, the primary sources were dry when not poorly written, and what did a primarily uneducated populace who decided to make women their scapegoats for everything that went wrong in their shitty, short lives have to do with her future career? Was she going to bring it up in a job interview to show she was well-rounded? Was she going to draw parallels to the world around her that were pointless, anyway, because Americans will steadfastly ignore all proof that history is repeating itself?

She decided that she was too tired for studying to do much good, anyway, and began walking home. As she trudged in her thin sneakers, soaked through from the wet piles of dead leaves littering all sidewalks, she heard a false laugh, and the clomp of thick, designer leather boots coming towards her. She closed her eyes tight, hoping that would make her invisible – but, of course, it didn’t.

“Why hello, Mel-oh-dee,” Sarah Jane’s voice crooned. “Didn’t your momma ever tell you not to squinch your eyes like that? It’s gonna give you wrinkles. And we all know you can’t afford the Botox.”

With a sigh, she opened her eyes, and resumed walking.

If there was such a thing as karma, the wind would have picked up, blowing Sarah Jane’s skirt up towards her shoulders and revealing a pair of laughably large granny panties. Or she would have slipped on the wet leaves, falling on her face like an actress in an old comedy movie. But Melody was very aware that karma does not exist. So of course it was her own feet that betrayed her, slipping on a cracked sidewalk hidden by the plethora of fall foliage. Her hands and chin were scraped by the unforgiving asphalt, and she would find that the unfortuitous action had cracked her laptop screen.

Sarah Jane and her cronies cackled, and Melody understood how a group of people could be mad enough at certain women to use any excuse possible, according to the widely accepted belief system of the day, to burn the bitches to death. But even if Sarah and gang were witches, it would be as pale imitations of the devious women thought to have naked orgies with the devil beneath the moonlight. Just some candle-burning, and “blessed be” Wiccan bullshit. Nothing criminal enough that their daddies, real, sugar, or otherwise, couldn’t get them out of.

Still. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if she and her bitches were taken down a peg. Or twelve.

The annual Hallowe’en bash was full of drama, as usual. Sarah Jane caught her boyfriend Ethan in flagrante delicto with sorority sister Mary Sue, which should have been almost boring at this point, but still resulted in tears and racoon-eyes, because Sarah Jane had unwisely foregone her waterproof mascara. Tiffany was discovered passed out in the bathroom, and unceremoniously dumped off at the hospital because no one wanted a ticket for drunk driving. One of Ethan’s frat brothers tried to show-off for a comely partygoer, and accidentally set the living room curtains on fire; the comely partygoer made the situation worse by pouring alcohol on the curtains to try to put the fire out. And one of the attendees snuck into the coat closet and relieved everyone of the cash in their coat pockets, wallets, and purses, as well as several sorority sisters of their credit cards.

The next time that Melody encountered Sarah Jane, her toes were warm and snug in the pair of Sorel boots she had recently acquired. Her neck was covered with a warm Burberry scarf, which peeped out of her dark blue pea coat. Sarah Jane, complaining to her “friends” about yet another instance of cheating by her boyfriend which one of them would likely soon partake in as well, did not see her through her bitterness and watery, irritated eyes. She walked right past, not even purposefully “accidentally” bumping into Melody, who was pleased to not be seen. Melody continued to the library, where she purchased a large flavored latte that probably contained all the calories she would need that day, before heading up to her spot on the fifth floor. The fifth floor contained the Regency period books, both those published during that time as well as more recent historical analyses. Even the most steadfast Jane Austen fan had a difficult time caring about these books, and save for the occasional odd student bravely trying to perform research that he or she would soon give up on, Melody generally had the floor to herself.

Melody walked to the fourth study carrel off the entrance and to the left, pulling the door closed, and laying her books on the shelves thoughtfully provided just above the desk. She removed her laptop, and logged in on the unblemished screen of the MacBook pro Sarah Jane’s father had unwittingly purchased.

Life was not fair, and karma isn’t real, although the ridiculous fire incident on Halloween night came close to making her think otherwise. She had witnessed the false and drunken bravado from the fringes, dressed as a slutty beetle (the only costume at the 11th hour with a full-face mask) as she snuck into the coat room and obtained her own justice. Her rich peers were almost asking to be robbed, having a ridiculous amount of cash in an unsupervised room, so she didn’t feel very guilty about removing their readily-available, liquid resources. Nor did she feel very guilty about sneaking through the quilted beige handbag with Sarah Jane’s name stitched across the front. In fact, she was not even sure if Sarah Jane had realized her Visa had been removed; Melody was still using the card to purchase food and drink because it had yet to be canceled.

As Melody took a sip of her creamy, sweet drink, she thought to herself that the witches on campus may still be alive, but she had burnt them, whether they realized it or not, where it hurt the most.

Written in response to one of M’s October Writing Prompts.