In the modern-day horror film, haunted houses are rarely depicted as large medieval manors with gothic spires and stained-glass windows. That image went out of style when Vincent Price hung up his cape. Today’s haunted house is more than a dark creepy shell; it is complicit in paranormal activities, as if it’s helping ghosts screw with our heads. The walls breath, the carpets grow scales, the hallways stretch into an abyss and the bedrooms transform into relics from the past. This symbiosis of the supernatural and its environment was most famously be seen in Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining. When protagonist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) encounters the spectral bearing of the Overlook Hotel, he’s not just confronting his own disturbing history of alcoholism and abusive tendencies, he’s also becoming a part of the hotel’s tapestry and portentous history. As he trudges through the Native American-styled lobbies and garish ballrooms, The Overlook begins to formulate his identity — an identity he tried to hide, even from himself.
This interplay between repressed anxiety and its physical enclosure is also on display in the new Blumhouse thriller, You Should Have Left, adapted from Daniel Kehlmann’s best-selling novel. As we continue staying indoors for months on end during what seems like an endless pandemic, it makes for a timely kind of terror. We’ve become permanent fixtures in our homes, and psychologically, it can feel as if we’ve become as ineffectual as our coffee table or favorite lamp. In this context, You Should Have Left reminds us that our identities and environments tend to oxygenate each other like fish feeding off algae in an aquarium.
The always reliable Kevin Bacon plays Theo Conroy, a wealthy ex-banker trying to leave a troubled past — which made him tabloid fodder for years — behind him. His wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) is not only a revered actress, but three decades his junior. This discrepancy in age and social viability seems to gnaw at Theo, who wrestles with his jealous tendencies by relentlessly writing in a daily journal and listening to a Deepak Chopra-inspired podcast. Their six-year-old daughter Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex) seems to be the only glue keeping the marriage together. The cracks are showing, not only in their relationship but Theo’s psychological composition. Deciding they need a break from their daily routine, they find opt for a getaway to a beautiful vacation home in Wales after finding an ad.
Sitting on a secluded hill in a lush Wales countryside, when the family arrives, the dark gray domicile looks more like a Frank Lloyd Wright prototype than a haunted house. Inside, the design is all bleached wood-paneled halls leading into facsimile brick bedrooms, all of which has a disorienting effect, as if you never know what room you’re in. Soon enough, the house starts working its mind-bending witchcraft on Theo’s consciousness. On their first night, Theo notices that when he turns one light off, another flickers on in another room. He also discovers mysterious Polaroids of past tenants taped to the walls. Then his nightmares turn a tad disturbing and he starts walking into rooms he didn’t know existed and confronting images reminiscent of his past.
Re-teaming with Bacon after 1999’s Stir of Echoes, writer/director David Koepp ratchets up the tension by taking us through some illusory explorations, featuring elaborate set pieces and grotesque images. Some of these images speak to Theo’s buried secrets, his deep insecurities and his need to control everything around him. The implication is the house doesn’t just mine Theo’s repressed nature, but extrapolates it, as if it’s coloring in the empty spaces of his consciousness. Ultimately, the house becomes a maze of sorts, physically and metaphorically.
You Should Have Left should be commended for trying to do something different with the supernatural horror genre, which at this point, has been beaten to death with innumerable sequels and franchises. Instead of merely popping out of the dark, the phantoms here psychologically dissect the house’s inhabitants. And the performances are spot on. Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried express a quiet turmoil without relying on abrasive melodrama. You almost want to see a whole movie about their disintegrating marriage instead of the ghost story. Still, even with Koepp’s deft directing and Angus Hudson’s textured cinematography, the movie lacks the bite of better paranormal fare like The Changeling or even Koepp’s other work (he is also a prolific screenwriter with credits including Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible). This film has its moments, but overall it feels tenuous and soft. The message is there, but the filmmakers’ style is a little hackneyed.
In what’s becoming a Blumhouse staple of storytelling, there are too many cloying music cues, overly-familiar horror tropes (ghosts physically kicking your ass, for example) and drawn out sequences, where you eventually groan, “OK, what was that all about?” In The Shining, Kubrick realized that an exploration of a man’s mental collapse requires a deliberate and temperate approach. You should melt into someone’s psyche, not kick down their door. Shocking imagery and rapid editing doesn’t speak to a splintered mind; it just feeds a hungry audience. You Should Have Left holds your attention and it is enjoyable especially since we’re stuck inside our own homes much like the characters in the movie, but it has a tough time deciding if it’s a cerebral exploration of a man’s stifled rage or a brash and jolting horror film. It’s almost impossible to be both.