Haunted-house stories occupy a lot of prime real estate in horror — they’re easy narrative structures for four-walling tales of things that go bump in the night and the psyche, the perfect go-to Gothic settings for letting literal ghosts of the past come out to play (or slay). They’re also such a fixture in the public imagination that someone had better bring more than just the same old spooky cobwebs and creaky staircases to the party, or at the very least, construct a superior model of the retro-macabre. According to author Stephen Graham Jones, your spirit-laden split-level homes come in two basic types: the Stay Away houses and the Hungry Houses. It takes a while to figure out which version you’re getting in David Koepp’s supernatural thriller — the title initially suggests the first category, then a midpoint reveal hints it might be the second one. What you realize the longer you follow Kevin Bacon through his own personal Overlook, however, is that it’s really closer to those Halloween pop-ups that rattle a few chains, give you a few aggressive stock shocks, and then brusquely send you on your way. Enter at your peril…of major eyeroll strain.
Loosely adapted from German writer Daniel Kehlmann’s novel about a tortured screenwriter (though really, is there any other kind?), You Should Have Left casts Bacon as Theo Conroy, the well-to-do husband of Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), a starlet who’s about to leave for a long shoot in London. This character’s scribbling isn’t professional, however, but simply therapeutic: It seems that Theo’s first wife passed away under questionable circumstances, and not even a not-guilty verdict could convince the general public of his innocence. It’s the cause of a lot of sublimated rage; so, for that matter, is his jealousy regarding his much younger second wife. Not even his mandated anger-management journaling can quell the paranoia and tension. So Theo, Susanna and their daughter, Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex), decide to take a quick family vacation before Mom reports to set. A listing for a spacious Air BnB in Wales shows up. At a glance, it’s the perfect getaway for the three of them to spend some quality time together.
Except things seem a little off about the place. For starters, there are no pictures on the walls. Forget about cell reception. New doorways and hallways pop up at random, leading to some curiously MC Escher-style detours. Theo keeps stumbling across eerie Polaroids scattered around the place. When he goes to shut things down for the evening — the lights in this place have a way of not turning off when you flip a switch, or simply going out at random — he returns a few minutes later…only to see that the clock says he’s been gone for almost five hours. Neither Theo nor Susanna can remember who originally found this place online, as they each think the other person emailed them about it. The local shopkeeper cryptically asks if he’s met “Stetler” yet. Who’s Stetler, Theo wonders? Could that be the person who scrawled YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT in his private diary, followed by the message: NOW IT’S TOO LATE?
There’s more creepiness on parade, of course, including mysterious figures in mildewy bathtubs, mysterious rooms that aren’t beholden to the rules of time and space, mysterious reflections in mysterious mirrors, mysterious voices on the ends of mysterious phone calls and a mystery man who keeps appearing in Ella’s dreams. (Or those might be Theo’s dreams, or his dreams about what Ella might be dreaming, or…after a number of are-they-awake-or-not fake-outs early on, it’s hard to keep track.) This tormented man’s love for his daughter turns out to be his pressure point, something Bacon — as sturdily committed as ever here — helps sell. Say what you will about the actor: He’s the picture of unflappable professionalism, even when things threaten to completely crumble around him, literally and matephorically.
It’s also a notion that Koepp is keen to exploit for all its worth once things go full-blown Hill House. A screenwriting legend with a to-die-for resumé (Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room, War of the Worlds), his career as a writer-director can be filed under “frustratingly spotty.” When Koepp does double-duty dabble in psychological horror, as with the 1999 Richard Matheson adaptation Stir of Echoes, which also starred Bacon, and his 2004 take on Stephen King’s Secret Window, the results tend to be second-rate scares stuck on a low simmer. You Should Have Left keeps that so-so streak going. He can gin up jump scares — watch out, someone just ran behind you, accompanied by a burst of symphonic cacophony! — but can’t really get a rhythm going here. Koepp can set up a curdling May-December dynamic between Bacon and Seyfried, yet he can’t get her mother/actress to seem like more than a rough draft of a sketch of a character. He can remind you that Blumhouse, the production company behind the film and the patron saints of modern horror, can do these sort of things in their sleep, but he can’t keep you from occasionally feeling like you’re going to drift into a nap in between “gotcha!” jolts.
And then there’s the final pulling back of the curtain as to what’s actually going on, which decorum keeps us from explicitly discussing. It is safe to say, however, that the sins of the father loom large here — we can confirm this, because a character actually says that very thing at one point. The idea plays into what has been a very game attempt at Poe-lite spookiness, though it does threaten to brush away whatever good will Koepp, Bacon and the production design team has built up to that point. You’d think that “boooooo” sound you hear as things come to a close is emanating from one of the unsettled spirits lurking in that cursed rental. You soon realize that it’s actually coming from inside your own mouth.