'You Should Have Left' and Why Horror Works at Home

You Should Have Left - Publicity still 3 - H 2020
The genre, known for its haunted houses, may be better suited than most for the COVID-19 era.

Home is hell. It might feel that way for some living under quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this concept of a domestic hellscape is also the basis for Blumhouse’s latest horror offering You Should Have Left, which makes its way to VOD today. Based on the novella by Daniel Kehlmann, and written and directed by David Koepp, You Should Have Left follows a middle-aged man, Theo (Kevin Bacon), his much younger wife, Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), a successful actor, and their daughter Ella (Avery Tiiu Essex) who book a vacation home in Wales that gives them more than they bargained for. Boasting strong performances, a tight script, and a fascinating psychological examination that feels comparable to Koepp and Bacon’s previous collaboration, Stir of Echoes (1999), You Should Have Left is a testament to Blumhouse’s versatility in terms of both narrative and distribution methods.

In the midst of the pandemic, studios have struggled over whether to push back their releases or to opt for release through video-on-demand (VOD) and streaming services. Universal Pictures, the most frequent distributor of Blumhouse’s productions, was the first to break the theatrical model with Trolls World Tour in April, to record-breaking success, a decision that has angered theater owners. Despite the controversy, Universal has continued with this new model, releasing Judd Apatow’s latest comedy, The King of Staten Island, on VOD last weekend. The studio recently confirmed it isn’t looking to replace the theatrical market when theaters do open for business once again, but does see VOD as a complementary offering that could see more releases hitting theaters and VOD simultaneously. Blumhouse is in a particularly unique position in this regard, not simply because of CEO Jason Blum’s seeming ability to adapt to any situation, but because horror seems to have the least to lose when it comes to the VOD market.

Blumhouse has already been experimenting for a few years with its distribution model, sending a number of their productions like Hush (2016), Family Blood (2018), Cam (2018), Mercy Black (2019), and Thriller (2019) to Netflix, while others like The Keeping Hours (2017), Delirium (2018), Seven in Heaven (2018), and Sweetheart (2019) have gone directly to VOD and DVD. While the negative connotations associated with direct-to-DVD and VOD haven’t entirely been left behind, audiences are a lot more receptive than they were a decade ago about films that forgo a theatrical release. Blumhouse has an uncanny ability to know its audience, and, debates on quality aside, the production company, alongside Universal, has had a pretty stellar track-record in determining which films make for crowd-pleasing theatrical experiences and which offer more intimate at-home chills. Though the company may have come to fame for its Paranormal Activity franchise, and teasers known for using footage of audience reactions, Blumhouse has evolved beyond found-footage scares and become the most varied home for horror made on a budget.

Koepp’s film was originally set for theatrical distribution before the COVID-19 pandemic, and while its one-sheet doesn’t exactly assuage any lingering fears about VOD releases, You Should Have Left is one of Blumhouse’s better non-event offerings. Unlike Blumhouse’s previous Netflix and VOD offerings, You Should Have Left has recognizable names behind it. Bacon’s previous Blumhouse feature, The Darkness (2016), the worst reviewed horror film to come from the production company, grossed $10 million on a $4 million budget. A good movie, like You Should Have Left, starring Bacon and Amanda Seyfried, which likely cost around the same, could have at least been a modest box office success. But as the theatrical experience continues to shift, and will likely shift further once theaters open back up, studios will have to grapple with what constitutes as an event movie and is worth the extra costs of marketing and theatrical distribution. A modest theatrical success may not be enough to constitute for a theatrical release anymore, as the attraction of theaters during these uncertain times will likely fall squarely on the shoulders of blockbusters.

Koepp expressed similar thoughts on the Reelbend podcast where he said: "I don’t know that this [movie] was always destined to be in a theater…But this movie, it’s cinematic, but it’s also intimate. And, you know, theaters have changed. What’s shown in theaters has changed. What people are willing to go out to see has changed. And what I definitely didn't want to happen was to go out and compete with a minor league budget for promotion and have to compete with a bunch of $150 or $250 million movies."

The intimacy of You Should Have Left makes it perfect for an at-home viewing. It’s the kind of quiet horror that creeps up on you, and an experience that I think would be lessened by a chatty audience. The great thing about horror, and Blumhouse’s diverse offerings, is that not every movie experience needs to be fed by audience reactions like so many blockbusters and studios comedies do, and their often low costs gives them an incentive not to be. That’s not to say that Blumhouse doesn’t benefit from its own blockbuster releases like Get Out (2017), Halloween (2018), The Invisible Man (2020), and The Purge franchise, but the company’s ability to determine which release strategy will get the most eyes on its films definitely benefits smaller, personal offerings like You Should Have Left. As production companies and studios struggle to find their place in the future of distribution, Blumhouse, alongside Universal, seems best equipped to navigate a landscape that’s going to become increasingly reliant on the complimentary experience of moviegoing and VOD.