It’s been more than 20 years since Dave Koepp and Kevin Bacon worked together. The first time around, their collaboration yielded 1999’s Stir of Echoes. Now, in 2020, they’re serving up You Should Have Left, an extremely serviceable horror-thriller which offers more of intriguing premise than it does satisfying conclusion.
Adapted from the 2017 novel written by German author Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left introduces us to Theo Conroy (Bacon), a retired banker who has done very well himself and now lives in a prime Los Angeles homestead with second wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) and daughter Ella (Essex).The shadows of Theo’s dark past, which he seems to believe has left him a marked man by the rest of the world, and a ongoing battle with all-consuming jealousy which strains his marriage encourage Theo to suggest an extended vacation for some healing family time. Suddenly, the Conroys are headed off to the Welsh countryside, where a gorgeous, minimalist home with great views and plenty of quiet awaits them.
But, as is the case with haunted house movies, this vacation home begins to chip away at the Conroy family, with a particular focus on Theo. Time gets lost too easily as Theo gets sucked into explored the house, the placement of walls and doors appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Shadows and ominous Polaroids appear without a trace of their origin to be found. Everyone sleeps poorly night after night thanks to vivid nightmares. Theo is almost immediately sucked in by his worst impulses, focusing his intense concern on the problem areas of his marriage. This manages to pick at wounds which the house only amplifies and forces Theo to face.
The Conroy family unit as played by Bacon, Seyfried, and Essex is You Should Have Left‘s strongest aspect. Yes, the noticeable age gap between Bacon and Seyfried is commented on and helps create a sore spot for their characters. But once that passes, Koepp’s script and the chemistry between this trio combine to make an effect beating heart at the center of what is otherwise a fairly sterile story. Essex is a the real star of this piece as the connective tissue between two parents destined for destruction. There is a gravity and maturity to Essex’s performance which helps avoid any tendency to overwrought child acting — an otherwise standard feature with a movie like this. Bacon and Seyfried benefit from acting opposite Essex, although they both turn in engaging work here which makes viewing go down smooth.
But strong performances combined with affecting, effective cinematography courtesy of DP Angus Hudson which helps tease out the dread do not a good movie make. Koepp’s script is uneven, making great work of shaping the Conroy family unit while completely lacking in crafting anything resembling haunted house lore which would add some intrigue as things progress. Sure, there are the standard warnings from a few stereotypically ominous locals. Theo’s nightmares are also alarmingly visceral, allowing for some shock and awe. There is also an effective sense of dread as the house strips back its oppressively. sterile beige walls and reveals a darker, grimier underbelly which sucks in Theo and Ella. But all of these things come in small, fleeting doses which fail to have any lasting impact.
It takes far too long for Theo to start interacting with the house in any meaningful way. If the point of You Should Have Left is for Theo to confront his past, it would be nice to see him confronting it through the house’s machinations rather than, say, Susanna giving us an information dump or Theo magically dealing with all of his trauma in the film’s final minutes. With the first two acts and a good portion of the third dedicate to ramping up the tension, You Should Have Left opts to rush through its climax and conclusion at such a pace that it’s hard to believe this is what the movie is actually doing. There are some pretty far-fetched shenanigans, like the double-Theo moment glimpsed in the trailer, which have zero payoff and feel disorienting given their use. There’s also a final secret dropped just a minute or two before credits roll which would have been great to see as it rippled through Theo and Susanna’s strained marriage earlier in the story.
The temptation to liken You Should Have Left to The Shining is strong. “A three-person family with problems they seem too ready to put in the past are undone but the evil energy contained in their vacation home” is a description which could be applied to both movies. But, unfortunately, this is simply not the case despite the former title’s implicit aspirations toward the latter. Instead, You Should Have Left is a haunted house tale fails to follow through on any of the big promises its story makes. In failing to really go for it, this Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions joint ends up a fairly standard, mild bit of storytelling which lightly treads into horror territory without the risk of unsettling you too much.
You Should Have Left is now available to rent on-demand.