Based on the novel by Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left serves as the prime example on how you can make a film with 7 cast members and a few locations. Written for the Screen and Directed by David Koepp (Stir of Echoes, Secret Window) and Produced by Jason Blum (Don’t Let Go, Us), the story is about Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon), a retired banker who books a vacation home online to take his much younger actress wife Susanna Conroy (Amanda Seyfried) and their brave daughter Ella (Avery Essex) to the Welsh country on a vacation for some family bonding time. Things begin to get strange very fast once they settle in the house, where nothing is quite as it seems as Theo begins to witness new doors appearing that weren’t there the day before, in addition to hidden notes written in his daily journal that he doesn’t remember writing. Until he finally realizes what’s bizarre about the house; it’s square footage is much higher on the interior than it’s exterior.
But, before Theo and Susanna take their daughter on vacation, we’re set up with the premise of mildly disturbing nightmares and ghosts of haunted past, disrupting the sleep of the entire family’s dreams. Theo, Susanna and Ella have nightmares where they’re haunted by an elderly, disheveled man who seems to hold a grudge. Sinister forces enter bedrooms at night, and writer/director David Koepp captures his sleeping subjects with a magnificent upside-down rotating shot, setting up a cinematic film in terms of camera positioning and movement. Although the nightmares seem to reappear and get played-out with overuse, it results in a mildly frightening escapade as the sequences of terror leave some chills through the body with unpleasant images of a creepy, sweaty, elderly man grasping a little girl by the neck and raising her in mid-air. When Ella wakes up, the nightmare isn’t over, and he haunts her again – suggesting that it’s a dream within a dream. Nothing is what it seems in this movie and once you think something is over, it comes back again, and again.
Throughout the film, Theo listens to an audio book on headphones about how to deal with nightmares, leaving us in a mystery with the suspension of information in terms of why Theo experiences these terrors so much. “Violent and oppressive dreams are designed to release the negative experiences of our day.” The audio book voice tells him, as we hear it in the form of a voice-over on the soundtrack. Theo is the protagonist and for the most part, we jump into the skin of his character throughout the progression of the story, seeing it from his perspective. Theo believes his actress wife Susanna has something up her sleeve, in terms of infidelity and unfaithfulness. He shows up to her movie set when she has to perform in an intimate scene with another actor, and we see the subtle rage of jealousy behind Theo’s eyes, in a convincing performance by the seasoned and polished actor, Kevin Bacon, who’s collaborated once again with David Koepp, since having worked together on Stir of Echoes (1999).
Their daughter Ella is inquisitive, probing for the deeper meanings of life at the age of 6. She asks profound questions about heaven and death, ready to hear the truth about life as opposed to being fed fairy tales. David Koepp employs overworked techniques from the horror/thriller genres by using shadows on the walls and shots of roaming ghosts in conjunction with startling sound effects. Had these techniques been employed by a filmmaker who doesn’t possess Koepp’s expertise, it could have come off has hackneyed. But, since we’re in the hands of a master screenwriter whose directing his 7th film, it’s effect on us in the audience is exhilarating. Even though, often times, thriller and horror filmmakers appear to be tapped-out on innovating different techniques to give audiences a scare, it seems as if all they can resort to are boisterous sound effects synced with sudden movements that inevitably cause anyone to jump from their seat; not because the images are scary, but because a loud noise just came out of nowhere. But since we’re in the hands of David Koepp, he uses these played-out techniques to his advantage and it results in literal chills down your spine and a shocking rush through the body that can leave you startled, and frozen. No matter how many times we’ve seen characters experience nightmares on film and live in haunted houses, David Koepp’s version of depicting these instances feel very different; thrilling and often times terrifying.
Koepp has crafted an excellent screenplay with subtle clues being hinted as the plot reveals itself behind the truth shredded within the mystery of the isolated house the Conroy’s have booked as their vacation home. When Theo takes a trip to the local market to purchase groceries, the strange and peculiar male clerk gives Theo the wild eye, and offers him a geometric ruler as a “gift”, suggesting that Theo should use it to discover what’s frighteningly bizarre about the construction of the house he’s rented. Without giving away any spoilers, the house is an allegory for facing your sins and confronting yourself and your shadow. This terrifying house can bring out the truth in you, which results in one of the main themes in Koepp’s film; this story is about guilt, love and honesty, and the house allegorically serves as the main character in the film in connection with Theo’s dark secrets.
Kevin Bacon delivers a solid performance as a calm, cool and collected character who uses his low tone of voice almost as a tactic to quell the surging stress and darkness that exists within his being. Kevin Bacon captures this characters’ personality while not overacting and overreacting. A very steady performance is delivered even when emotions of other characters are running high. The dialogue is clever and offers a different perspective on very common issues that arise in life with married couples; like jealousy and infidelity in addition to the concept of life and the reason for its death.
At its essential core, we go to the movies to experience emotion. In You Should Have Left, the emotions experienced are chilling thrills. If you watch this movie, you should also watch yourself – while watching this movie. This way, you can see what the film is doing to you. Whether it’s your heart rate changing, your chest caving, or cuddling under a blanket or throwing on some sweatpants when it’s not even cold outside but because the subject of the film makes you want to go under something warm. In a small movie with a minimal cast and a handful of locations, one shouldn’t be surprised as to why this film affects them the way it does; we’re in the hands of a master in David Koepp. Aside from his impressive resume of directing efforts, Koepp has written the screenplays for a wide variety of prominent films in the last three decades like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) & War of the Worlds (2005) in addition to Brian de Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993) & Mission: Impossible (1996) & Snake Eyes (1997). Even though we may feel like we’ve been inside haunted houses swarmed by shadows and ghosts plenty of times before, it feels different this time around because this film attempts to convey a more significant theme, aside from its mere marketing as a horror/mystery.
You Should Have Left is available for Early Access streaming on Amazon Prime.