Understanding what a society fears goes a long way toward understanding what it values, and horror movies have long served as a funhouse mirror, distorting and reflecting our collective cultural hangups. The subtext of The Exorcist is fear of single mothers producing godless teenage girls who grow into troublesome women, disrespectful of patriarchal institutions, and the brilliant but deeply flawed Silence of the Lambs is, at its heart, a movie just as much about workplace harassment and the ways we devalue women at every level of our culture as it is about cannibals or serial killers. The central, non-ghost conflict of Kevin Bacon’s newest horror movie, You Should Have Left, is a larger, timely question wrapped up in an aggressively average horror movie: How culpable should men feel right now?
The film reunites Bacon with Stir of Echoes director David Koepp and focuses on a theme touched on in Echoes and another Koepp film, Secret Window: It’s possible for regular men to also be bad men. In You Should Have Left, 62-year-old Bacon plays the jealous husband of an actress played by 35-year-old Amanda Seyfried. Bacon’s character is some sort of rich banker who was tried and acquitted for killing his first wife. Seyfried is maybe cheating on him but also thinks the dead wife murder mystery is hot. An early scene proves that they still fuck. Two subsequent scenes prove that Kevin Bacon’s abs are still very good, which combined with the wealth seems to signal to the audience that this pairing is fine and not weird. But it’s impossible to look at a couple with a nearly 30-year age gap and not wonder what is really going on.
Bacon’s character, Theo, seems to agree. His wife is always texting; he’s left off the call sheet on a film set in which she is faking an orgasm so loudly one can hear it in the parking lot. Their marriage is weird. To combat his old husband cuck-centric paranoia, the pair take their small girlchild from their perfectly serviceable Los Angeles mansion to a more remote, creepier mansion in Wales, which, on the outside, looks like the standard, heavily-windowed concrete block favored by the wealthy and vaguely techy in movies. But inside, narrow brick hallways claustrophobically ensconce tastefully bland midcentury modern decor, reflecting a second collective cultural fear: What if a hyper-modern looking, very expensive house didn’t have an open floor plan? The separate rooms would probably not only seem small but the sheer presence of doors, rooms, and corners would probably invite ghosts.
And invite them it does. The house mutates and sprouts the ghosts born of Theo’s own guilt, like if House of Leaves was about a finance guy who woke up one morning cursed with a sense of empathy for his first wife. In Theo’s recurring, violent nightmares, a scary-looking man threatens to tell his daughter a secret. In another, the daughter is mysteriously dead just like his first wife. In others, the dead wife has followed them to Wales to be dead there. Very predictable scares ensue as the house reveals itself to have a second, secret set of rooms wrapped around those that are visible, much like the human subconscious. Things appear in mirrors, the Welsh villagers are inexplicably standoffish, there’s an unexplained Polaroid, and time moves in ways that don’t make sense. The house itself grows and shapeshifts as the main character might be having troublesome, waking nightmares; doors appear and disappear; a child’s voice echoes in its terrifyingly narrow hallways. As he traverses the physical maze, the old finance guy must also parse his guilt over the pill-induced drowning death of his first wife, for which he has been legally acquitted, if not psychically. It’s standard creepy-house murder mystery movie fare that never quite comes together.
But while the film is clumsily executed and heavy-handed, the idea is fascinating. The production company responsible for You Should Have Left is Blumhouse, which has produced some of the most important and entertaining horrors of the past 20 years, including Get Out and Sharp Objects. It has also produced some heavy-handed bullshit seemingly written by men who read about complex topics like domestic violence on Wikipedia for roughly 15 minutes before churning out irresponsible garbage like The Invisible Man.
You Should Have Left is somewhere in the middle. While the themes of men reckoning with their own parts in women’s suffering could have been great in someone else’s hands but were only mildly interesting here, it also didn’t cause me to throw a full-on tantrum in an Alamo Drafthouse parking lot about the various medieval witchcraft-detecting techniques I’d like to use on men writers attempting to use violence against women as a fun plot device by coating it with a little bit of saccharine pseudo-feminism.
And though You Should Have Left isn’t particularly well-done or scary, it is a piece of zeitgeist about a late-middle-aged white man who admits most things in life came easily for him while reckoning with his guilt around the ways he’s treated women. Even the title isn’t just about the house—he should have respected his dead wife enough to amicably and equitably gotten a divorce and then no scary things would have happened to him when he was just trying to look at Wales with his hot young wife and daughter. And though, spoiler alert, the young hot wife is obviously cheating on him, and in a rage, he throws her out of the Welsh mansion, inviting still more demons to harangue him, the film refuses to let the transgressions of that woman excuse the main character’s inability to see women as humans who need the same care and consideration he expects for himself.
There is a moment in the film where the main character’s big-eyed, angelic girlchild looks at him and says, “I love you no matter what, daddy,” and it’s a testament to Bacon’s acting ability, given such clunky material, that he manages to look back at her and convey the internal horror of that moment. She shouldn’t be taught to love her daddy no matter what. Sometimes fathers have been terrible to other women despite having the ability to love their own daughters. “I have daughters” excuses exactly no sins. He ultimately realizes that in order for his own daughter to understand that, he’s got to first accuse himself of the bad things he’s done to women, even if that means losing his own daughter.
In the current era of women calling out about men’s refusal to see women as fully human, it seems more likely that our horror films might feature men disproportionately punished for “regular” transgressions in the vein of Fatal Attraction. A horror film in which a man grapples with completely deserved consequences to his actions, battling his own conscience manifested as the supernatural, feels quite welcome, even if this one doesn’t quite tick off all the boxes. If someone gets it right, the resultant film will be an incredibly valuable time capsule for the moment we’re currently living.
You Should Have Left is currently streaming everywhere via video on demand.