Bacon and Cheese
At first glance, You Should Have Left seems to be a by-the-book haunted house movie. It certainly checks plenty of the boxes: the isolated and mysterious vacation home, the precocious child in tune with the supernatural, the sinister presence that grows more and more tangible. But writer/director David Koepp has more on his mind than weaving a workmanlike horror yarn, attempting – with varying degrees of success – to add a more serious dramatic element to the proceedings.
Kevin Bacon stars as Theo, a retired banker married to the much-younger Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), a Hollywood actress. They enjoy a seemingly perfect life with their young daughter Ella (Avery Essex), but things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Theo has to deal with a small amount of infamy from a dark event in his past, resulting in frequent uncomfortable interactions with strangers. When Ella presses Susanna about it, she gives in and tells her daughter the truth: Theo was investigated for the mysterious death of his wife and found innocent, but his status as a high-profile banker saddled him with a cloud of suspicion which has followed him ever since.
During a break in the shoot of Susanna’s latest movie, Theo seizes the opportunity to take his family on vacation to a house in rural Wales. Shortly after their arrival, strange things begin to happen: Theo and his family start having increasingly vivid nightmares, the locals are cryptic and evasive when discussing the house, and Theo begins to lose his sense of time within the house’s labyrinthine walls. As if that weren’t enough, the stress of the situation brings the repressed resentments and doubts of Theo and Susanna’s marriage bubbling to the surface. In a clever bit of writing, Theo and Susanna try to leave the house soon after these events, but for reasons I won’t spoil here, they are unable to do so.
You Should Have Left’s greatest strength is its trio of lead characters, who are fairly well-written and given depth by the actors. Bacon provides a nice anchor to the movie’s crazier moments in the lead role, and the script’s subtle handling of Theo’s tormented past gives him more to do than just play the lead victim. And while Susanna isn’t without a stereotypical starlet vapidity, she’s also a real person with intelligence and flaws, and Seyfreid ably conveys both aspects of the character. Essex, meanwhile, steals the movie, giving an adorably guileless and unselfconscious performance.
The movie’s first half, which allows the actors to do more than run around frantically, is unsurprisingly its best. It has fun with the drastic change in setting from L.A. to Wales, whose rolling hills and cloudy skies are beautifully photographed – especially given the modest budget. The house that serves as the movie’s main setting is a vividly realized piece of set-design, aesthetically pleasing but oppressively soulless in its total commitment to impersonal modernism. It’s a novel departure from the standard creaky mansions that define the genre. You Should Have Left is also quite competent in the way it portrays the domestic drama, along with some moments of light comedy.
Problems arise, however, when it comes the actual horror, which isn’t awful; just unremarkable. The movie avoids the most obvious haunted-house clichés (it’s blessedly restrained in its use of jump-scares), but still fails to tread any new ground. The way the house bends space and time is fun to watch, but never rises above the level of creepy. You Should Have Left tries to pull out all the stops for its finale, which begins as a promisingly surreal journey through the house’s rapidly fraying reality, but devolves into a silly, far too literal confrontation between Theo and the evil spirit. It’s followed by an epilogue which fails to pack a punch, any emotional weight it might have carried negated by the goofy climax. I admire You Should Have Left for attempting to add some substance to its haunted-house tale, but ultimately it doesn’t quite satisfy on either count.