It’s nice to have something new to review after this long spell of COVID-related delays and cancellations. Movie theaters will finally be opening up again soon – and I gotta say, I don’t care if I have to sit there with a mask on the whole time, I’ll just be glad to be back in a darkened theater. But until that happens, rentals and streaming are still our only respite – but we finally have a new release in the horror genre, Blumhouse’s You Should Have Left. I only wish I could say better things about it.
The flick does have one – or rather, three – good things going for it in its cast. Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried and Avery Essex do a terrific job in portraying the family at the center of this weird little haunted house tale, which starts out with daughter Ella (Essex) waking up in the middle of the night after hearing a noise. She lets a naughty swear word escape her lips and then a shadowy figure appears in her room – who suddenly prohibits her ability to speak and breathe as scolds her for swearing. Then Ella wakes up, only to be grabbed and choked by the same shadowy man. And then it’s dad Theo’s (Bacon) turn to wake up from the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream. Ahh…tricky.
Then a pleasant male voice explains how dreams are the “mind’s way of working through the everyday thoughts and stresses of life.” It’s the next morning and we see Theo sitting by his pool listening to the voice, doing some meditation thing as his much younger wife Susanna (Seyfried) finishes up her laps in the pool. Turns out she’s an actor and before she heads off to set, she and Theo briefly discuss getting away for a while, just the three of them.
I’m not a big fan of Hollywood making movies about itself – you know, actors playing actors doing the movie-within-a-movie thing. To me it just feels incredibly conceited, and more than that, boring. But I will admit that the next scene was actually pretty funny. Theo goes to the set later to pick Susanna up, but she’s still filming and Theo has to wait with this stern-faced security guy who thinks he’s her father and insists on yelling “Rolling!” right in his face. The guys share an awkward and hilarious moment as they listen to a couple of takes of Susanna faking an orgasm.
After Theo and Susanna finally leave the set, Theo worries that the security guy recognized him (more on that later), and Susanna deflects the issue by suggesting they get busy in the car. After a tryst on a cliffside road, the two agree to take Ella and go on a vacation before Susanna has to be in London for another job. So they head to a rental house deep in the Welsh countryside – and at first glance, the house looks idyllic, a super-modern-looking fortress in the middle of bucolic woods and fields. All three of them ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over the house as they take a tour – and Susanna keeps trying unsuccessfully to find a cell signal. The one thing they notice right away is the strangeness of the house’s layout – doors and hallways seem to be in odd places, and everything is immaculate – cleaner than clean, as if the most minimalist, anal-retentive person in the world decorated the place. They of course downplay the strangeness and set about relaxing and just enjoying being a family – but of course, it doesn’t last.
Now in any story, it’s essential that a percentage of the time and writing be devoted to character development – that is, getting to know the characters and learning their history and behavior and why they are the way they are. The best flicks maintain a perfect balance between character development and plot – so that the audience learns everything they need to know and hopefully develops empathy for the protagonist(s) without spending so much time on it that the flick feels like it’s dragging. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, for sure – and I feel badly in criticizing a writer/director as skilled as David Koepp. But unfortunately, You Should Have Left’s balance is definitely off. We spend way too much time on Theo and Susanna’s relationship, which of course, is much more problematic than at first glance. Turns out that Theo has a dark past, where he was accused of murdering his first wife. The shadow of it heightens his insecurities with Susanna, who he’s always suspicious of. And for good reason – turns out she’s cheating on him.
The problem is that we spend so much time on them and not nearly enough time on the house, its purpose and its past. The only things we learn about it are through Theo’s nightmares and the people in the nearby village – who of course seem to know all about the house, but won’t tell Theo anything but cryptic, ambiguous statements that leave both Theo and the audience going, “huh?” And as the screen time passes, the line between Theo’s nightmares and reality blur – which sounds cool, but given that you still haven’t really learned the house’s deal, you just end up confused – and worse than that, bored – until the last act, where the house stops teasing and finally drops its full load of horror.
Unfortunately though, all the big revelations turn out to be things you’ve already seen in a lot of other flicks. So not only is the house basically a TARDIS (bigger on the inside for those not familiar with Doctor Who), but it also has the ability to manipulate time and space – something which has definitely become an overused device. So when that shadowy figure from the beginning of the flick reappears in the last act, you’ve long since guessed that it’s a future version of Theo. And when Theo realizes that it was another future self that wrote “you should have left” in his journal, you’re not surprised at all. And when Theo and Ella escape the house and hike through the woods only to end up right back to the house, you’re not surprised by that, either. Instead of being clever, it all just feels by the numbers. And even though Kevin Bacon does his best to convey Theo’s unraveling sanity over the course of the story, it really feels like there’s a whole lot of nothing going on until the last act, where everything then gets thrown at you all at once and then bam, it’s over. And unfortunately, it leaves you feeling like twenty bucks was way too high a price to pay for such an underwhelming experience.
Directed by: David Koepp
Written by: David Koepp, Daniel Kehlmann (novel)
Release Date: June 18, 2020
Run Time: 1 hr 33 min
Distributor: Universal Pictures