By the time you’ve resigned hopes for the aptly titled David Koepp-directed, Kevin Bacon-starrer You Should Have Left, the improbable happens: Theo (Bacon) and his young daughter Ella (Avery Essex) place a plastic triangle ruler at a wall and realise that one end of it is slightly skewed from the ground. Taking out a measuring tape, Theo and Ella gauge the immediate exterior and the interior of the room, only to find out that the house is five feet longer on the inside. Surely, ill-omened affairs are afoot.

You Should Have Left is Koepp’s second team-up with Bacon; their last association, The Stir of Echoes, held up much better 20 years ago. The two should have gone for something else.

This adaptation of an already minimal novella by Daniel Kehlmann modifies some aspects of the story but doesn’t stray as much from the source material (the novella is a first-person narrative of a nameless screenwriter penning a sequel; here, he is given a name, a new job and a backstory).

It should have diverted and diversified more. Right after its mid-point, the film turns into a poor man’s rendition of The Shining — an already needlessly bloated piece of technical mastery that somehow made its way into the movies’ hall of fame.

You Should Have Left could have been a taut, mesmerising supernatural thriller…

Most of Koepp’s screenplay is set within a big, minimally designed house in Wales, where Theo — a wealthy banker, infamous from his first wife’s death — spends a getaway with his second wife, a film actress named Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) and daughter Ella.

Susanna is young, sensible and impervious to the creeping horror of the house. Her eyes and hands are often held hostage by her cell phone. Theo notices this, but doesn’t react. Showing a state of wearied, passive-aggressive restraint on this front — he’s often listening to an Indian self-help guru in a bid to control his once hotheaded personality — Theo is guilt-ridden and very angry inside.

At times it’s painfully obvious that he likes his wife and loves his daughter — a fact explained away to the not-so-bright of the audience in an excellent scene between Theo and Ella late in the film.

For the most part it’s the small things that haunt Theo. When he isn’t running away from bad dreams, mysterious scribbles appearing in his personal journal, and a shadowy man in a baseball hat, Theo laughs a little with the family.

One running joke is the age gap between Seyfried and Bacon’s character. His somewhat macabre-minded daughter often says that he would die first because he is old. By the end of the film, after we’ve explored plenty of Theo’s internal dilemmas — all of them cliched — one still hopes he doesn’t kick the bucket. The haunted house, with its labyrinthine hallways, supernaturally connected rooms and a depressive clay-coloured paintjob, of course has other plans. Cower and shudder… I don’t think so.

Koepp is a brilliant screenwriter of tentpole summer releases (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Panic Room, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Angels and Demons, The Mummy), and a good enough director of modest thrillers, actioners and quirky dramas (Premium Rush, Secret Window, Ghost Town, Mordecai). By the virtue of its premise and Seyfried and Bacon’s excellent roleplay, You Should Have Left could have been a taut, mesmerising supernatural thriller…however, to get to that part, one has to sit through an hour’s worth of logy material.

Released by Universal and available to buy or rent via Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango and other VOD platforms, You Should Have Left is produced by Jason Blum and Kevin Bacon, and written and directed by Koepp. The film is rated R for brief sexual content, mild use of loud and foul language, and even milder scares.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 12th, 2020