From a young age, I have always been obsessed with all things horror. I believe this began when my father introduced me to the 1941 version of The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. After this came the Abbott and Costello movies, more specifically, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Was it the jarring sounds, the jump scares, my fascination with monsters and the paranormal? Or was it that perhaps I found something comforting in the feeling of being frightened?
Since then, I have been on a journey to find the scariest movies, the most terrifying haunted houses, the most bone-chilling podcasts, and the roads dubbed most paranormal.
A self-proclaimed horror movie buff, being in quarantine has allowed me the time to really research what horror movies are out there that I have not yet seen. “Good” horror movies that consist of interesting plots, believable acting, and the ability to truly “scare” are hard to come by, but I was able to find a modest number of films that have lived up to my expectations.
Most recently I decided to give the 2020 movie You Should Have Left, starring Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried a shot. Both of these actors have been in many successfully blockbusters, but what drew me to this film was Kevin Bacon’s role in the Invisible Man and Amanda Seyfried’s role in Gone. Both movies genuinely entertained me while making me jump a handful of times. Their acting was believable, and they committed to their respective characters and roles. Based on those aspects, I was sold. I waited until the sky went dark, turned off my living room lights, and sat back, patiently waiting to be scared. I was not disappointed.
Now this was not the typical horror movie that seems to enthrall the masses; there were no insurmountable heaps of gore and no disformed monsters of any sort. The horror and suspense was more subtle, drawn out over the course of the film, slowly seeping into your mind and messing with your head. There were nuances of fear, hints of something not quite right that could not be pinpointed. It was obscure and unsettling, the feeling one hopes a horror movie can invoke.
Although the film is slow paced, and at points I found myself wondering when I would be scared, I realized that this was the exact sentiment the filmmakers were trying to elicit. The film set out to slowly draw you in so that you put your guard down and get comfortable. You may notice something small here and there, a sound, a shadow, something out of place, but you reason it away and continue on, oblivious, just as the characters do, and before you know it, it’s too late.
The film opens to a dark and ominous atmosphere. We quickly learn that Kevin Bacon’s character, Theo Conroy, is experiencing a nightmare in which a sinister man, known as Stetler, is attempting to take Ella, Theo’s daughter. Theo abruptly wakes up from the nightmare to his sleeping wife, Susanna, played by Amanda Seyfried.
We discover that Susanna is a young, successful actress, while Theo is clearly struggling with a dark, traumatic past from which he is trying to run away. We often find Theo listening to a self-help recording or writing in his journal. After visiting Susanna on set of a movie one day, and being recognized by a crew member, much to his dismay, Theo and Susanna decide to take time off and head to Wales, booking a reservation at a home they found online.
At first, the vacation appears to be just what the family needs, but quickly things begin to go awry. Theo’s nightmares begin to worsen, strange polaroid pictures pop up showing indescribable images, and then Theo begins losing large amounts of time that he cannot recall.
A trip to town to pick up supplies leaves Theo even more confused as he is met with the strange ramblings of the shop clerk and a local woman. Both mention Stetler and the home up the hill where Theo and his family are temporarily staying. Theo brushes this off and returns to the home.
Simultaneously, while on a walk through the woods, Ella inquires why everyone hates her father, who she refers to as “Baba”. Susanna reluctantly shares Theo’s past with Ella. We learn that Theo used to be a rich banker, whose wife overdosed on prescription pills and drowned in their bathtub. Theo claimed he was working late, and when he returned home, he found his wife dead; however, he is charged with her murder and because of his status, the case is made very public. Although Theo is acquitted and the death is ruled an accident, the event follows him, haunting him.
Once Susanna shares the story with their daughter, the atmosphere in the house deteriorates. Theo’s nightmares become more realistic and gruesome, and he begins to suspect Susanna is cheating on him. This is confirmed when he discovers Susanna has two cellphones. When he confronts her, she admits to the infidelity. Theo forces her leave, not allowing her to take their daughter.
After some hesitation, Susanna leaves and Theo returns inside where he is unable to locate Ella. Assuming she is playing a game of hide and seek, he begins to search for her, but quickly realizes something sinister is afoot; the house begins to shift and turn into a puzzle of sorts; doors lead to one place and then another, the hallway extends and darkens to an almost unworldly hue, and Theo begins seeing shadows. Stetler appears and attempts to take Ella as Theo desperately searches the house to find her. When he finally does, he bundles her up and sets out towards the town in an attempt to leave the house behind them. The four-mile journey to town is brutally frigid, and in the dark of night, the sounds of screaming animals and rustling in the distance leaves not only the characters, but the audience on edge. Shivering and terrified, Theo attempts to comfort a frightened Ella and exclaims that he sees a glow of light and they must be approaching the town, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief. That is, until Theo stops dead in his tracks with a look of pure terror on his face. They are back at the house. Theo’s confusion and dread are felt very clearly through the screen.
Knowing they cannot stay out in the cold as the temperature continues to drop, Theo convinces Ella they must return to the house, just for the night. Grudgingly, Ella agrees, and they make the trek up the trail to the house. Theo tucks Ella into bed, laying right next to her, afraid to let her out of his sight. At some point Theo falls asleep and is awoken by the sound of a Polaroid picture being snapped, and he realizes Ella is gone. After frantically searching the house, he comes face to face with the ominous Stetler in a disconcerting alternate version of the home that looks charred and decrepit. He begs Stetler to release Ella, but Stetler refuses, slowly morphing to resemble Theo, until it appears that Theo is looking in a mirror. He tells Theo that he belongs in the house and he knows what he must do to release Ella. Theo seems to understand this, although we, the audience, are left in the dark for the time being.
The house transforms back to its natural form and we see Susanna pulling up in her car. Theo kisses Ella and straps her into the car. He turns back to his wife and tells her he is not coming with them. He concludes that he belongs in the house and that the house will not let him leave. Susanna stares, bewildered, until Theo continues. He confesses that he did in fact kill his wife; he came home early that evening and found her passed out in the bathtub and watched her slowly sink into the water and drown. He admits he could have saved her, but he refused to after years of neglect and unhappiness. He tells her that he should have left years ago, as this could have all been avoided, but now it is too late, and he deserves his fate. He tells Susanna that he will always love her as he returns to the house. Before the screen goes dark, we hear a voice-over explaining that the house chooses specific people, and some people never leave. We learn that the house is merely a gateway, changing and mutating with time, and that Stetler is the devil himself.