There’s a maddeningly impossible rental home at the centre of the icy new thriller You Should Have Left, one that defies the laws of physics, torturing an already tortured couple, played by Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried. It’s the only real thing of substance that’s survived the transition from Daniel Kehlmann’s shivery source material, a brief yet haunting novella from 2017. It seemed like a strange choice for horror factory Blumhouse to buy up soon after, a surreal riff on The Shining told with maximum opaqueness, an odd, glum tale that didn’t deliver the straightforward, crowd-friendly frights the company usually gravitates toward. Originally intended for the big screen, it’s now launching digitally instead, a smoother fit for an intriguing if unremarkable chiller, an easy adaptation of a hard book.
Kehlmann’s protagonist was an unnamed screenwriter whose journal told us a confounding tale in jagged pieces. In writer-director David Koepp’s deviating version, he’s a retired banker (with a name) and while the story remains hazy in parts, it’s far more streamlined and easily digested, like a multiplex remake of an arthouse film, some nuance lost along the way. Theo (Bacon) is in need of a break. He suffers from intense nightmares, suffocating jealousy and a paranoia that his dark past is forever going to plague him and those he loves. His wife Susanna (Seyfried) finds them a house in Wales, a remote getaway far from their LA mansion, a place to reset with their daughter Ella (impressive newcomer Avery Essex) in tow.
But there’s something off about the rental. It’s hip but soulless and its labyrinthine structure quickly turns from confusing to creepy. It’s infecting their dreams and the longer they stay there, the harder it becomes to differentiate between reality and nightmare. Koepp, a long-time hired Hollywood hand (he’s behind the screenplays for Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and Mission: Impossible), has been to similar places before. He adapted Stephen King’s Secret Window, about a writer losing his grasp on what’s real, and he also wrote and directed Bacon in Stir of Echoes, a supernatural thriller about a family dealing with sinister forces. There’s something a little too smooth about his take on Kehlmann’s book, a sleekly directed horror that could have used a more unusual eye. The creepier specifics of the story – the lack of right angles in the house, the rooms that shouldn’t technically exist – are presented in such a matter-of-fact way that they don’t really rattle us in the way that they should and Koepp relying on noisy jump-scares rather than a more consistently unsettling sound design is a lazy mistake.
He does manage a handful of effective moments – Bacon using a broken bottle to wake himself from a grisly dream works horribly well – but he can’t quite sustain enough of an atmosphere, despite the one location. It never really gets under our skin, this horrifying inescapability of an otherworldly house, and as it ends, it goes away, rather than returning to unnerve us hours later. Bacon can do this in his sleep (half of the role requires that exact thing from him) and there’s solid work from him and Seyfried although a key third act confrontation is a bit flat, their relationship told in anonymous broad strokes. The indie horror revival we’ve seen in the last decade has heralded in a new generation of ambitious film-makers who take familiar tropes and stylishly refresh them, from Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar to David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows to Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge. There’s care and vision employed within a genre that’s so often lacking in both and given the strangeness of the source material here, I kept wondering what someone else could have done with this, someone whose strangeness aligned.
You Should Have Left should have left our nerves frayed and our dreams haunted but instead, it leaves us cold.
You Should Have Left is available digitally in the US with a UK date to follow