One of the more underrated horror films of 2020, You Should Have Left is David Koepp’s spiritual sequel to Stir of Echoes, and once again stars Kevin Bacon as a family man confronted with a modern twist on the haunted house. This time around, Bacon plays Theo Conroy, a wildly successful banker who became persona non grata with his friends and family for his suspected involvement in the “accidental” drowning of his first wife. We only find this out gradually, however, since the film opens with Theo married to his second wife, Susanna, played by Amanda Seyfried, with whom he has a daughter, Ella, played by Avery Essex. Theo has long since retired, but Susanna is in the midst of her career an an actress – a profession that puts considerable strain on the relationship, given her apparent infatuation with her co-lead Angus, played by Geoff Bell. Despite her protestations that nothing is going on, the couple decide that they need to get away from Los Angeles to spend some quality time as a family, eventually settling on a remote house in Wales, where the majority of the film unfolds.
The opening scenes in Los Angeles are critical, however, for establishing the unusual mood, tone and approach of Koepp’s vision. From the outset, the daylight looks a little too bleary, a little too light, exuding the discomforting brightness that descends on those who haven’t slept properly the night before. Much of Hollywood here seems to be shot on green sceen, producing a palpable plasticity and flat artificiality that almost segues the opening scenes into the heightened intensity of Mulholland Drive. In addition, Theo regularly listens to meditation tapes that encourage him to envisage serene airbrushed tableaux very similar to those that Koepp uses as his own establishing shots. This glossy overlay makes the whole film look like a real estate brochure, culminating with the real estate website where Theo and Susanna first glimpse the Wales house, which looks just as clean and crisp when they arrive, right down to the photograph of the house that hangs in the main corridor, taken straight from the website.
This spatial scheme forms part of a broader interest in how changes in real estate and interior design have altered the possibilities for domestic and suburban horror. Not only does the house in Wales take the bright blankness of the opening scenes to its logical conclusion, but it apotheosises the cool, clean, clinical minimalism that has become so big in recent interior design. This is also the bind that Mike Flanagan’s films contemplate – how to continue domestic horror, which once depended entirely on eccentric decors and fixtures, now that interior design has become anti-décor in its sensibility? Yet whereas Flanagan intensifies gloom in lieu of décor, Koepp goes the other way here, generating horror from the absence of décor – from spaces that subsist entirely on bright, clean, crisp sightlines and light sources.
The first thing that Theo and Susanna notice about the Wales house is that there is almost nothing in it but lights, which fragment it into a series of clean geometric shards of brightness and darkness. There are so many light sources and switches that light effectively is décor in this space – or, rather, light is space, since turning off the lights just reveals other sources of light and further geometric configurations. Just as there is nothing in the house but light, so the light illuminates precisely nothing (except more light), turning the house into a kind of concatenation of non-décor, or anti-décor – the perfect objective correlative for a film that itself always looks a little too crisp, a little too bright, and a little too digitally manipulated. This is interior design that yearns to approximate digital space, and so whittles itself down as far as possible, until the brick finish is the same on the inside and outside walls, meaning there’s no real sense of interiority, even or especially when the family are ensconced inside.
This non-décor is even more dramatic in comparison to the rugged textures of the surrounding countryside and the quaint fixtures of the local Welsh village. You’d think that moving from Los Angeles to Wales would produce more domestic texture, but it actually evacuates the domestic spaces of the film even further, until Theo and Susanna’s minimalist LA pad feels positively cluttered by comparison. That, at least, still feels like a house, whereas in Wales Theo and Susannah are faced with the mere notion of a house – just lights, shadows, walls and doors. You can feel this weird aspatiality in the oddly toned dialogue, which exudes that peculiar brittleness that settles when there’s no décor to absorb, muffle or mediate it.
These combinations of light and shadow grow more abstract as the film proceeds – quite noirish and expressionist by the second half – and correspond with Theo’s nightmares, which start to peak after Susanna reveals that she has in fact been sleeping with her co-star. Theo finds it harder and harder to wake up from these dreams, or to discern the exact moment when he falls asleep, turning You Should Have Left into a latter-day echo of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Yet Koepp’s dreamscapes couldn’t be more different in tone and style from Elm Street’s extravagant flights of fancy – here, the dreams don’t add anything, but instead distil the essential and inexorable emptiness of the house. Whereas Elm Street used dreams to intensify décor, You Should Have Left presents us with dreams of décor, and yet even in dreams décor remains relatively fugitive, a fleeting promise rather than a stable state.
Insofar as décor is an imperfection, or a contingency, the closest Theo gets to it is his discovery that one of the walls in the house doesn’t meet the floor at an exact right angle. This leads to him obsessively measuring all the dimensions of the house to make sure each space is outlined as clearly and crisply as it claims be. Like his dreams, though, this only gets us so far, meaning that when décor does emerge, it can only do so as a lurid return of the repressed, and as the very end-point of this house-abstraction, as Theo and Ella are forced to revisit the primal scene of his first wife’s death – a baroque bathtub planted under an equally baroque chandelier that feel uncannily out of place amidst all the clean lines and empty spaces of the house. We only get a glimpse of genuine décor in the brief flashback to the scene of the death, the richest chunk of space in the whole film, while the supernatural entity, when it does emerge, can only manifest itself as fleeting shifts in the Wales’ house clean, crisp sightlines.
To its credit, however, the film doesn’t focus to heavily on this supernatural figure, or on Theo’s past, or even on his nightmares. Instead, Koepp generates most of the horror from this uncanny non-décor – and its radical discorrelation of human experience and lived domestic space: “An ant doesn’t know a cathedral – you can’t know what you don’t know.” In the third act, we finally learn that the site is cursed, and that the house has been rebuilt many times over the centuries, sending out feelers to its victims with each new incarnation. Yet the spectre of all those Gothic edifices (which apparently reach back to the Stone Age) are creepy mainly insofar as they throw the sparseness and austerity of the current house into greater relief. The great twist of the film, then, is that this house is truly the pinnacle of the curse – and totally unfurnished spaces are ultimately more Gothic than elaborately furnished ones.
In the end, then, You Should Have Left taps into the Gothicism of contemporary anti-décor –spaces that subliminally remind us that we should have left, because they’ve already left us. The more you try to sanitise or erase space, Koepp suggests, the more the inherent uncanniness of space – it’s essential indifference to us, even or especially at its most domestic – blooms through. In the concluding scene, Theo and Ella try to escape from the Wales house, and try to get back to the décor of the small town, but instead keep on circling around it, doomed to a labyrinth of prefabricated spatial anonymity. Deleuze once described an any-space-whatever, but this is one step beyond that – a non-space, or a post-space, that only permits décor and lived space to return as a repressed and Gothic entity, as a precondition for the horror that Koepp does so well here.