There has been many a horror film to be completely saved through the intervention of nothing other than a really terrific, atmospheric location. You Should Have Left is not one of these.

To be sure, the location is terrific, an ultramodern McMansion with razor-sharp clean lines, tastefully austere appointments, and a profoundly inorganic hostility to human messiness (it is substantially played by a a Welsh rental property that caters to meditation retreats; it is extremely hard to guess if its presence in this film is going to help or damage its future popularity). And it has been lit and shot to carve all sorts of mysterious, gloomy corners out of its mercilessly sleek lines: cinematographer Angus Hudson has done phenomenal work in extracting whatever moody menace can be extracted from the location, both as a well-lit interior with shadowy touches and as nighttime exteriors marked with little slashes of light, and everything in between. So terrific, and then also atmospheric on top of it.

But it does not save the movie, and it needs an awful lot of saving. What writer-director David Koepp, adapting Daniel Kehlmann's novel (not terrifically faithfully, as I understand it), has given us, is a combination domestic drama/haunted house movie, trying to split the difference between a psychologically introspective thriller and a things-going-bump portrait of a physical space going horrifically wrong. It doesn't come remotely close to doing so: the obviousness of the scares cheapens the attempt to grapple with something tough and ambivalent in its characters, while the self-seriousness of the themes and characterisations makes the film too mordant to enjoy as an enthusiastically ratty bit of spooky nonsense. So it's just a muddle, not this and not that, deeply unsatisfying at everything it attempts to do. It is not just mediocre; it is strenuously mediocre, having taken Koepp and company an enormous amount of effort to get it into such shabby, ineffective shape.

First things first: a little girl (Avery Essex) is being visited by a shadowy figure of a scuzzy old man, screeching vulgarities against her and her father. Except this is a fake-out: it's actually her father (Kevin Bacon) dreaming that she's receiving these visitations indicting himself. As we'll learn over the course of the first third or so of the movie (a long 93 minutes), the father, Theo Conroy, has ample reason to feel like he's not a great person and not a great dad. First, his wife, and the mother of the girl Ella, is much younger than he is. At least a solid 20 years separate him from Susanna (Amanda Seyfried, 27 years Bacon's junior), and this fact plagues him on two levels: first because he's convinced that she must be having an affair, being that she's a very attractive movie actor and he's a dismal old fart; second because he clearly views himself as a predator who, when it comes down to it, would deserve to have his gorgeous trophy wife cheat on him. There's also the matter of his first marriage, which ended in his wife's accidental death; he's been cleared of all responsibility, but the stink of doubt has clung to him enough to destroy his social standing and professional reputation (he is a banker). He seems, all told, to be a self-loathing asshole sad-sack, in desperate need of a long trip outside of the United States to re-orient himself. Unfortunately, the Airbnb-like service that he was using has set him up with a rental home that is a locus of pure evil: the local townfolk speak of it in the purposefully vague tones of dread that recall the nervous villagers of a Gothic vampire movie, and the Conroys have been in the house barely any time at all before it becomes clear that there's something "wrong" about it, like it refuses to stay completely still when you're not looking. Not to mention that Ella's shabby nocturnal visitor has followed the family to Wales.

If you expect that the shifting, uncertain architecture of the house is a mirror for the shifting, uncertain inner workings of Theo's mind, congratulations: you have correctly guessed the level of strenuously "artful" clichés this will be operating at. That is, in fact, not even the most obvious among the film's revelations: it presents as horrifying twists things that pretty much any remotely genre-savvy viewer will have clocked long before they're confirmed. This is, indeed, where that very sluggish momentum comes in: the film has a lot of dead air in its first hour as it tries to divert our attention from things we have already figured out, like a magician flopsweating through an unsuccessful birthday party.

More to the point, surprising or not, what the film presents us with simply isn't very interesting. Theo's defensive self-loathing is simply dull, and while Bacon moves heaven and earth to layer subtle depths into his performance - letting us see both the rancidity and the tragedy within the character, the very real terror of losing something he doesn't think he deserves, the savagely protective love for Ella - ultimately this is just a supremely well-executed version of a character type that wasn't especially worthy of the execution. Seyfried is fine in a role that Koepp hasn't figured out; Essex is very impressive as a mortally terrified child, and watching her distress is close to the only actual moving emotional material in the whole film, so kudos.

In short: it's a boring, obvious, and overall pretty dire character study that wants to Say Something about toxic masculinity, and succeeds; the problem is that what is saying is basically, "boy, that masculinity sure is toxic, innit?" Happily, the film is on much surer footing as a horror-thriller, always able to rely on oppressive camera angles to make the house look threatening and claustrophobic despite its wide-open layout. It's not art, but it'll do. Plus, the film manages a solid 10 or 15 minutes of actively strong material, right around the one-hour mark: it's the point where the house starts to freak out, but the danger is still largely objective and existential, rather than turning inwards to Theo's tormented soul, where ends up in a largely whiffy final stretch. There are some zoom-out/track-in shots to make the hallways go stretchy and narrow, there's fine use of surprising cuts to make things appear and disappear, there's one immensely satisfying composition with a creepy silhouette framed in a brightly-lit rectangle amidst the gloom. It is a special little stretch of the movie that confirms that Koepp - a talented filmmaker, by all means - could have made a hell of a good haunted house movie if he'd aimed to. Instead, we get one good sequence awkwardly worked into a film that can't decided what its priorities are and tries to do everything, meaning it can do nothing especially well. I appreciate how scarily attractive the movie is, and the exhausting work Bacon has put into defining his character, but it ultimately just doesn't add up to anything: You Should Have Left is basically just a bunch of reasonably effective fragments of a movie that never comes together. And even if it did, I can't honestly say that it's doing anything haunted house movies haven't done for a long time, it's just doing them more prettily than usual.