What I and many others have learned from viewing hundreds, if not thousands, of horror films is there’s a definitive moment that defines the main character. There are two paths they can go down that will render the audience captivated or turn them off entirely. For Hunter White (Becoming Elizabeth’s Alicia von Rittberg) in Leave, the moment comes when she hears a supernatural voice telling her to “Leave” while investigating her genealogical origins in Norway. Obviously, hightailing it back to the States isn’t in the cards. There wouldn’t be much of a movie if she heeded the advice of a ghostly entity. However, her actions following the experience and how they’re portrayed in director Alex Herron’s feature debut will make or break the audience.
Wrapped in a cloth covered in satanic symbols and left with a necklace of an upside-down cross (aka a Wolf’s Cross), Leave begins with the discovery of Hunter as an abandoned baby in a cemetery and then fast-forwarding to twenty years later. Hunter, who is about to go away to college, deviates to Norway without telling her adopted dad (Clarence Smith) when the results of a genetic test and some digging into her past lead her to suspect a member of a traveling rock band (The Innocents’ Ellen Dorrit Petersen) may be her biological mother.
Hunter ends up being wrong about who her mother is, but correct about her being in the Norwegian band that played at a Boston nightclub the evening she was abandoned in a cemetery. The band’s singer, Cecelia, tells Hunter about her mother (Maria Alm Norell), who disappeared after that show, and how her father (Morten Holst) was institutionalized and suspected of her murder. Through Cecelia’s help and investigatory breadcrumbs, Hunter finds her mother’s family, but nothing about them is quite what it seems. Specifically, Patriarch Torstein (The Quake’s Stig R. Amdam) who attempts to control everything with a biblical grip of fire and brimstone punishment, especially for female characters associated with the wickedness of Eve’s transgressions.
Thematically, the film touches on religious conviction and hypocrisy but, unfortunately, doesn’t lean in enough. Leave plays it safe, suggesting devils and angels in the allies and enemies Hunter makes throughout her journey, proposing the limitations of religious characters’ morality through a literal interpretation of their beliefs as they are written, showing no empathy for human nature. At the same time, those deemed godless heathens project humanity’s more caring attributes. Herron wants us to understand that not everyone who says they’re religious is good, and just because someone is branded a sinner doesn’t make them a bad person.
Intrigue abounds at the start of Leave’s cautionary tale as Hunter seeks her family lineage. The trope is hardly new, easily recognizable in films like 2006’s Abandoned, 2013’s Texas Chainsaw and Bela Kiss: Prologue, and 2022’s The Invitation. Finding out who your family is in a horror film is often a curse, no different than taking a shower while a masked killer lurks or checking out a strange house with a murderous history. Leave is no different.
Though the start of the film is engrossing with a jet-setting tempo and energetic moments of tension filling the first act, such as Cecelia’s bodyguard thinking Hunter is a stalker and chasing her into her hotel room, as the movie continues the quick scares and convoluted plot quickly become tiresome. Sure, Leave throws a couple of twists the audience’s way by the end, but by the time we get there, Hunter has run in a labyrinth of circles, and the audience stops caring. If I’m blatantly honest, Leave’s script suffers from a lack of originality. I grew weary as Hunter’s plight became about stealing a diary from Torstein and the melodrama of misogynist, incestual overtones emanating from her cousin’s (Ragnarok’s Herman Tømmeraas) gaze. Despite presenting a few misdirects, everything in the film fits the beats of the trope’s template, and by the end, Leave is exactly what you’d expect it would be.
After the film, I began thinking about 2015’s Estranged, about a woman who returns to her family home to recuperate after a terrible accident. Estranged and Leave are very similar in presenting distant relatives and sternly held beliefs. The film was middle-of-the-road, though Game of Thrones’ James Cosmo played one hell of an iron-fisted patriarch and delivered a vile characterization that allows me to remember the movie. Leave doesn’t have that with Torstein. The peril in the film doesn’t exist because the opposition is coming from everywhere. While Hunter struggles with visions of a ghost, the established dominance set by Torstein, the unknown intent of her sarcastic, privileged cousin, and family history where the women do not fare well, the film tries to create an atmosphere of evil intentions making it unclear where the threat lies.
The trailer for Leave left me obsessed, and I viewed the film with anticipation just after receiving it. While I don’t think that the trailer misrepresents the film, it definitely shows off its highlights, cut up in a way that makes the film look pulse-pounding, and I can say that is not the case. Other than a well-put-together first act and a suitable finale, Leave was a prosaic and generic affair, with no real moments that will likely help me remember it in the future beyond how mundane I found it to be. The trailer weaves together a couple of decent scenes from the movie, making it look like something other than what it ends up being.
Ultimately, Leave wasn’t for me. The acting is fine—Rittberg sometimes has trouble with an American accent, but it doesn’t spoil the film. The movie is watchable, but I think many horror hounds will want to venture elsewhere. Leave’s thrills are few and far between. It isn’t bloodless, but it’s close to it, and the film is largely unoriginal, to boot. My advice, leave Leave alone.
Leave streams exclusively on Shudder beginning March 17.