With its simple premise and modern fable structure, You Should Have Left could have been a killer horror short, a solid Tales From The Crypt episode by way of the O.G. Twilight Zone. In its stretched feature form, it suffers from cliched fillers, an unnecessarily convoluted second act, and audience handholding—though the core mystery and poetic final twist are supported by the small cast’s grounded performances.
Kevin Bacon reunites with writer/director David Koepp for another horror outing after 1999’s much better Stir of Echoes. Bacon plays Theo, a rich banker who was accused of his wife’s death from a drug overdose. He was found innocent under the law, but the media circus around the case resulted in a significant portion of the public still believing that Theo killed his wife. Even a decade after the trial, Theo gets nasty looks from random people, turning him into an anxiety-ridden recluse. As an attempt to move on with his life, Theo marries a decades-younger actress named Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), and has a sensitive daughter named Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex) with her. But the ghosts of the past refuse to leave Theo’s conscience. His meditation tapes and therapeutic journal no longer provide the calming effect they’re supposed to, so Theo decides to take his family to a peaceful and isolating vacation in a remote house, on top of a remote hill, in a remote Welsh village.
With so many uses of the word “remote,” you can probably guess that we’re in for a haunted house tale (or, in this case, a haunted Airbnb). Before long, the serene nature of the house gives ways to bizarre visions, creepy hidden rooms, vengeful ghosts, traumatic nightmares that show Theo losing his grip on his family, and an unseen force that liberally screws around with time and space. All of this confusion makes Theo increasingly more paranoid, leading to either a tragedy for himself, or his family. He’ll either end up as Jack Torrence from The Shining, or Mike Enslin from 1408. Neither option is optimal.
As the spooky shenanigans become more outlandish, Koepp maintains the characters’ credibility by developing them with depth, and giving them relatable motivations. The script, adapted from Daniel Kehlmann’s novel, certainly passes the Eddie Murphy/Delirious test of haunted house movies: “Why don’t white people leave when there’s a ghost in the house?” As the horror escalates, every decision made by Theo and Ella to protect their family rings true. For example, they decide to leave before any tactile existence of the supernatural manifest. Just a creepy feeling about the place is enough. Later, Koepp subverts another haunted house trope: The family staying there overnight, no matter how deadly the threat becomes, just because they decided to leave in the morning. For once, “Just grab your kid and run away!” advice from the audience is answered.
Koepp, Bacon and Seyfried work admirably toward capturing a credible dynamic between a couple who love each other, but have to deal with the natural awkwardness that comes with a considerable age difference. They try their hardest to hold onto a witty and passionate relationship, but their vastly different needs and priorities eventually bubble up to the surface as the house’s true mission becomes more apparent. The fable’s final twist works not only because it provides a smart double entendre to the title, but also because it seamlessly pays off the personal themes it meticulously builds up. The only major issue with it occurs when Koepp dives headfirst into “Psychiatrist exposition in Psycho” mode, tacking on five minutes of on-the-nose dialogue and flashbacks to clarify the obvious, and providing a low-grade insulting of audience’s intelligence.
Even in this time of shortened attention spans, there’s ample room for slow-burn horror that relies on character and atmosphere and reserves the spooky goodies for the third act. You Should Have Left’s narrative build relies on a steady escalation of the supernatural elements as they relate to the protagonist’s mental state. A natural progression of this approach would result in almost no traditional horror set pieces during the first two acts, relying on a uniform unsettling mood to carry the genre’s torch. But perhaps worried that the audience might get bored, Koepp employs that reliable method of injecting traditional jump scares into a horror script before the actual horror calls for them—just add a bunch of nightmare sequences that that don’t add anything to the plot, character development, or themes. An unfocused second act, full of asides and sub-plots that don’t add anything to the bigger picture, makes this problem stand out even more.
You Should Have Left works when it’s a streamlined campfire ghost story, but the unnecessary bells and whistles weighs it down. Still, it’s just good enough to work as a timewaster for genre fans.
Director: David Koepp
Writer: David Koepp
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex
Release Date: June 18, 2020
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.