Kevin Bacon stars as a middle-aged man forced to face his demons in You Should Have Left, a dark psychological horror film from Universal, about a mysterious house in Wales that doesn’t seem to want to let its occupants leave. Tonally, it’s in a similar vein to The Others (2001) and The Shining (1980), with a dash of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for good measure.
(Some minor spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
Co-produced by Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions, the film is adapted from a 2017 German novella of the same name by bestselling author Daniel Kehlman. It’s written in the first-person style of a diary belonging to an unnamed screenwriter attempting to write a sequel to an earlier hit film. With the studio pressuring him for a draft, he rents a house and takes his wife—an aging actress for whom work is becoming scarce—and four-year-old daughter on a long vacation in hopes of finishing the script.
As the screenplay develops, so do strange occurrences in the house, with the narrator reporting harrowing nightmares. Eventually the narrator finds it difficult to determine whether he is still dreaming or awake and finds a message in his handwriting telling him to “get away.” His wife (who has been having an affair) denies having written it, and the narrator soon realizes he is trapped in the house. Whenever he tries to leave the living room, for instance, the door he goes through always leads him right back there. Can he figure out how to escape with his family to ensure their safety?
You Should Have Left Director David Koepp had worked with Bacon before on Stir of Echoes (1999), an unjustly ignored supernatural thriller/murder mystery adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson. (It remains one of Bacon’s strongest performances, over his long and illustrious career.) The two remained friends, periodically casting about for a new project on which to collaborate. Bacon was interested in doing a “scary movie” focused on a deteriorating marriage between a man and his much younger wife—a common trope in Hollywood. (Bacon is 27 years older than his co-star in this film, Amanda Seyfried.)
Koepp liked the idea of exploring the inevitable tensions in such a coupling, having always been a fan of what he terms “domestic horror,” citing Rosemary’s Baby as one of his all-time favorites. As they were discussing the possibility, Bacon stumbled across Kehlman’s novella, telling Koepp, “You’re not going to believe this, but this [novella] is like our story.” So they optioned the rights and began adapting it for the screen.
One significant departure from the book is that Bacon’s character, Theo Conroy, is a wealthy finance professional in Koepp’s film, rather than a screenwriter. “I just didn’t want to write about a screenwriter,” Koepp told Ars. “I also think a writer in a remote house possibly losing his grip on reality is a story we’ve seen numerous times before. I wanted to mix things up a bit.” He also didn’t want to make “a bad guy with a knife” movie, opting for a film that subtly elicits a sense of panic and disorientation in the viewer, along with a growing dread that something is not quite right—without being able to put a finger on what, precisely, that threat might be.
That man in the mirror
Theo struggles with jealousy concerning his much-younger actress wife, Susannah (Seyfried). Visiting the set of her latest film on the day she’s shooting an explicit sex scene doesn’t help matters, despite her insistence that she “pretends for a living.” He convinces her to take an extended family getaway to a remote house in Wales with their young daughter Ella (Avery Essex). At first glance, it seems like the right choice. The scenery is gorgeous, and the house is large and has some very nice high-end finishes. Theo particularly appreciates the quiet.
But the weirdness soon sets in, starting with Ella noticing a moving shadow when she’s trying to play shadow puppets in bed one night. And as Theo starts exploring the house, he notices some oddities. There are a puzzlingly large number of light switches, and the living room is five feet longer on the inside than on the outside. The locals are far from welcoming, making cryptic remarks whenever they encounter Theo in the village. One day he finds a warning scrawled in his journal: “Go now,” followed the next day by an even more ominous message: “You should have left. Now it’s too late.” It seems the house holds its own sinister secrets—or is Theo just losing his mind?
Translating a novella written in a first-person diary format, focused heavily on the interior psychological landscape of an increasingly unreliable narrator, proved to be a bit of a challenge. “I think it’s a miracle that books get made into movies at all, because they’re primarily about what people are thinking and feeling,” said Koepp. “Movies, of course, don’t have access to that unless there is somebody narrating.” So Koepp employs recurrent mirror imagery, dream states, and sudden shifts in time and space as a way to externalize Theo’s fracturing internal state.
“People have always stayed in that house. Some don’t leave.”
Both Bacon and Seyfried are terrific in this, but Avery Essex gives an equally powerful performance as Ella, despite her tender age. “I would love to take credit for it, but Avery is just an incredibly natural actor,” Koepp said. “She would be a normal kid, bouncing around on the set like kids do, and then you’d say ‘Action!’ and she just locked in and became her character.” As a father himself, Koepp also took pains to ensure Essex was prepared for some of the film’s scarier moments, carefully talking it through whenever she got scared or anxious by those darker elements.
In one such sequence, Ella disappears somewhere inside the house, calling for her father in terror as an increasingly desperate and panicked Theo searches for her, with doors appearing and disappearing, and hallways constantly shifting. (The sequence was partially inspired by a famous The Twilight Zone episode, “Little Girl Lost,” which in turn inspired a similar plot twist in the 1982 classic horror film Poltergeist.) In one shot, Theo walks through a ten-foot hallway, only to look back and see it is now a good 75 feet long. Some of this was just creative shooting, but Koepp maintained a spreadsheet of the eight different hallways built on the set to keep track of them all.
As for that amazing house in Wales, it’s real, although Koepp added a second story via CGI. It proved to be the perfect framework in which to explore the film’s themes of guilt and punishment, purgatory and retribution. “People have always stayed in that house,” a local grocer tells Theo shortly after the family’s arrival. “Some don’t leave. The right ones usually find the place. Or maybe it’s the other way round. The place finds them.” We eventually learn a little bit more about the history of the house, but overall, Koepp is content to keep the details vague, so that “we’re not quite sure what the house has in mind” until the final twist.
You Should Have Left is currently available on VOD.