Producers: Jason Blum, Kevin Bacon and Dean O’Toole Director: David Koepp Screenplay: David Koepp Cast: Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Essex, Colin Blumenau, Lowri-Ann Richards, Joshua C. Jackson and Eli Powers Distributor: Universal Pictures
Back in 1999 writer-director David Koepp and star Kevin Bacon collaborated on one of the better chillers of the time, the underappreciated “Stir of Echoes.” They reunite in this adaptation of German author Daniel Kehlmann’s 2017 novella—a haunted-house thriller with echoes of its own, reminiscent not just of the pair’s previous picture but of other movies, most notably “The Shining.”
That’s awfully exalted company, and if “You Should Have Left” hardly belongs in so upscale a cinematic neighborhood, it’s sufficiently unnerving to raise a few goosebumps. But that’s due less to the narrative, which Koepp has significantly altered from Kehlmann’s more cerebral book and made much more conventional in the process, than to the technically sophisticated craftsmanship of production designer Sophie Becher, the visual effects team led by Wesley Froud, and cinematographer Angus Hudson. Their contributions complement the savvy of the director and editor Derek Ambrosi to generate substantial tension, if only sporadic moments of genuine fright. And the score by Geoff Zanelli adds to the spooky atmosphere.
The protagonist is Theo Conroy (Bacon), not, as in the book, a writer (perhaps Koepp felt that would be too close a match to Jack Torrance), but a rich banker with a scandal in his past regarding the suicide of his first wife, for whose death many felt—and still feel—him to have been responsible. Now he’s married to a much younger woman, an actress named Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), with whom he has an energetic but soulful daughter named Ella (Avery Essex).
Theo loves Susanna, but is possessive of her, suspecting that she might be having an affair with one of her professional colleagues, perhaps her assistant (Eli Powers). He’s also suffering from nightmares—a particularly gruesome one involves Ella and a waxen boogeyman who accosts her in her bedroom. So he suggests a vacation before Susanna begins her next film in Europe. He uses the internet to rent a modern house in Wales where the three of them can spend a few weeks in relative isolation, relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. Of course while there he’ll surreptitiously keep tabs on his wife’s communication by phone and e-mail, to assuage—or confirm—his suspicions about her.
The house turns out to be a strangely beautiful but weird structure—an ultra-modernistic variant of the Bates domicile in its hill-top placement, with an aura inevitably reflective of the Overlook as well. When Theo travels the four miles to the nearest village to get groceries, the laid-back shopkeeper (Colin Blumenau, whose surname is incorrectly given as Bluemenau in the closing credits) asks him if he knows the place’s owner, somebody named Stetler, and whether anything has happened there yet; he also gives him, unasked, a plastic measuring triangle as a gift. In addition, an odd woman outside (Lowri-Ann Richards) indicates that she’s aware of his notorious past.
From this point things go quickly downhill in terms of family harmony. Theo’s suspicions escalate when he discovers that Susanna has a second phone, and he’s angered by the fact that Susanna has told Ella about the circumstances of his first wife’s death.
And the house exacerbates his paranoia. It’s not merely the multiplying nightmares and the chronological shifts he seems to experience, but its strangely off-kilter construction, with apparently concealed hallways and doors that have a way of appearing, disappearing, slamming shot or unaccountably locking. After he’s left alone with Ella after a rift with Susanna that leads her to leave, the house begins to threaten the girl physically, and Theo has hallucinations—or are they hallucinations?—in which the house changes shape to prevent him from finding her. Time goes backward and forward as well, and the boogeyman from his first terrible dream shows up –Stetler, played by an actor in makeup to conceal his identity but no more successful in doing so than was the heavy application of wax to Kirk Douglas’s face in “The List of Adrian Messenger.” And when Theo tries to escape with Ella, the house intervenes.
Koepp ties everything together at the close, capping the shopkeeper’s eventual revelation about the location where the house sits with one of Theo’s own. But while these might satisfy the need of a literal-minded viewer for a “rational” explanation for the goings-on, the last half-hour of “You Should Have Left” is little more a grab-bag of eye-popping effects. But thanks to the craft of Becker, Froud and Hudson, and the skill with which Koepp and Ambrosi tie the visual acrobatics together, what might have been a muddle becomes a cheerfully slick roller-coaster ride.
Bacon anchors the film with a typically intense portrait of a man aching to act normal while suffering painful inner turmoil, and Seyfried is fine as a trophy wife who can’t quite commit herself to domesticity, but it’s Essex who’s perhaps most memorable as a little girl who mixes childish ways with a maturity that in some ways puts both her parents to shame.
“You Should Have Left” may be no more than a low-rent version of “The Shining,” but at least it’s cunningly enough assembled to keep you from thinking that the title might have served as a warning to the viewer as well as the Conroys.