June 18, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by David Koepp
Culture Representation: Taking place in the United Kingdom region of Wales and briefly in the Los Angeles area, the horror film “You Should Have Left” has a cast of nearly all white people (with one African American character) representing the upper-middle-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An American husband, wife and their young daughter go to Wales for a vacation and experience terror in their rental house.
Culture Audience: “You Should Have Left” will appeal primarily to people who like horror stories to have more psychological drama than bloody violence.
In trying to put a unique spin on movies about haunted houses, “You Should Have Left” succeeds in some ways and fails in others. It’s one of those horror flicks that relies a lot on clichés, such as jump scares and terror scenes that often turn out to be just a nightmare from a character in the movie. However, “You Should Have Left” (written and directed by David Koepp) shows some glimmers of originality in its underlying social commentary about how couples should communicate with each other before things go stagnant or awry in their relationships.
One of the best things about “You Should Have Left” (which is based on Daniel Kehlmann’s novel of the same name) is that it doesn’t overstuff the movie with unnecessary characters. The story revolves around just three main characters: retired businessman Theo Conroy (played by Kevin Bacon); his Hollywood actress wife Susanna “Susie” Conroy; and their 6-year-old daughter Ella (played by Avery Essex). Theo is about 25 years older than Susie, and he’s made enough money before retiring that the family could be considered upper middle-class, but not so rich that they can afford multiple homes or a fleet of luxury cars.
The movie begins in the Los Angeles area, where the family lives. Theo visits Susie on the outdoor set of a movie where she’s working, but he’s stopped by a production assistant (played by Joshua C. Jackson), who tells Theo that it’s a closed set. Theo insists that he is Susie’s husband and that he’s on an approved list of people. The production assistant still refuses to let Theo onto the set.
As Theo stands by, feeling emasculated and powerless, it becomes clear why it’s a closed set that day, as the sounds of a sex scene being filmed can be loudly heard nearby. Theo gets even more uncomfortable because he knows that Susie is filming this intimate scene, while he has to stand outside the set, as if he’s an unimportant nobody.
After Susie is done with her work for the day, they talk about what happened. In their own ways, they both experienced some kind of indignity. Susie tells Theo that she felt somewhat exploited by the director in the sex scene, but she tries to minimize it by saying that at least the film seems to have been shot beautifully. Theo says that he was embarrassed about being prevented from being on the film set. Susie apologizes and tells Theo that she definitely told the production team that Theo was going to visit the set that day.
This scene is important to establish the dynamics between Theo and Susie. Although Susie married a well-to-do older man, she still wants to have an independent identity. She doesn’t want to be perceived as a “trophy wife,” so she has mixed feelings about how her sexuality is being used as an actress. Theo is accustomed to being an “alpha male,” so it bothers him that he doesn’t get respect in Susie’s world when he goes to visit her when she’s working.
Theo also mentions something that’s important to the thread that ties this story together: He says that the production assistant recognized him—and not in a good way. Susie replies, “They think you’re dangerous.” There are other hints dropped later that Theo has a major, high-profile scandal in his past. It’s easy to figure out what’s going on with this story, especially when the scandal is revealed.
Before they head home, Theo and Susie have sex in their car. To relieve some of the tension over this scandal that continues to haunt Theo, he suggests that they take Ella on a getaway trip to the United Kingdom, since Susie has a few weeks off before she begins shooting scenes for a movie in London. They rent a remote countryside house in Wales that was found online.
The furnished house is modern and spacious, but eerie. The architecture has some odd features, such as hallways that are too narrow and stairs that lead to a basement area that’s disproportionately larger than what it looks like it could be from the outside. The house was rented from a mysterious owner named Stetler, who might or might not be the baseball cap-wearing creep with a cane who shows up in visions and nightmares that Theo keeps having. Ella and Susie are also having nightmares.
Even before the family took this trip, Theo spends a lot of time on his phone listening to recorded self-help “mindfulness” lectures. (The voice heard giving these lectures is a Deepak Chopra sound-alike.) Theo follows the self-help instructions, including doing meditation and writing his thoughts in a journal. But during the family’s stay at the vacation house, Theo starts to find ominous messages written in the journal, such as “Leave. You should go now” or “You should have left. Now it’s too late.”
Theo encounters some local residents who aren’t very friendly when they find out that he and his family are staying at this house. When Theo goes to get groceries at the nearest store (a small grocery shop), the shopkeeper (played by Colin Bluemenau) eyes Theo suspiciously and asks, “You staying up the hill? Anything happen yet? You met Stetler yet?” Theo tells him no.
On another occasion, Theo goes outside to find a local woman (played by Lowri Ann Richards) standing in front of the family’s rental car. She doesn’t even introduce herself, but instead asks Theo if he saw Stetler. When Theo says no, she responds, “Well, he saw you,” before she walks away.
Adding to the paranoia, Theo snoops around by looking at messages on Susie’s phone and her laptop when she’s not in the room, such as when she’s taking a bath. He begins to suspect that all is not going well in their marriage when he finds out that Susie has a second phone that she deliberately kept a secret from him.
Ella, who is a bright and energetic child, senses that something weird is going on with her family, even before they took this trip. She asks Susie why people are afraid of Theo. After Susie tells Ella about Theo’s scandal from his past, things start to get even more terrifying in the house.
“You Should Have Left” has some pacing issues because much of the story has several filler scenes that don’t really go anywhere. There isn’t much character development, but Essex does a very good job portraying the intuitive and curious Ella. (“You Should Have Left” is her film debut.) Bacon and Seyfried make convincing parents to this child, but they’re less convincing together as a couple, since there isn’t much chemistry between them.
Their lack of chemistry has less to do with the big age difference and more to do with the fact that Theo and Susie don’t have much to talk about, other than Ella, and their marriage definitely looks like a “trophy wife” situation. Even when Theo and Susie are supposed to be together at the house, when they spend time looking after Ella, they often do that separately.
It’s also a little too convenient to the story that Ella and Theo are a “loner couple” who don’t seem to have any family members or friends to confide in when things start to go wrong in the house. However, their social isolation probably has a lot to do with Theo’s scandal.
Koepp and Bacon previously worked together in the 1999 horror film “Stir of Echoes,” which is a much better film that shows Bacon as someone haunted by supernatural forces. “You Should Have Left” does have some genuinely creepy moments, and the movie is worth seeing if people don’t mind horror movies that have a “slow burn” intensity. Other people might be bored or disappointed with the movie, which doesn’t do much that’s new in the horror genre, and the film has an ending that’s very predictable and obvious.
Universal Pictures released “You Should Have Left” on digital and VOD on June 18, 2020.