There’s almost enough exposition before the main title appears in Don’t Leave Home to fill most movies. But writer-director Michael Tully dispatches that challenge with brisk economy, laying intriguing foundations for a story in which religion, urban legend, dreams and surreal waking nightmares collide in a landscape both beautiful and unsettling. While this twisty tale of an “evil miracle” connected to a self-exiled former priest ultimately withholds too much to resolve all of its enigmas, the atmospheric mood and persuasive performances keep you watching. It’s definitely on the more subdued end of the Irish horror spectrum, but that shouldn’t keep it from finding an audience on streaming platforms.
Ireland has a harrowing real-life history of long-unexplained disappearances, from the countless numbers abducted, murdered and secretly buried during the Troubles in Northern Ireland to the shocking cases of infant death and illegal adoption traced back to Roman Catholic-run homes for unwed mothers. That makes the country fertile ground for a murky “vanishing” mystery, particularly one with an angelic-looking child as its catalyst.
Tully’s prologue, set in 1986 and shot in a boxy aspect ratio that makes it seem even longer ago, concerns 8-year-old Siobhan (Alisha Weir), whose parents commission a portrait of the girl from a local cleric. The priest paints her praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary in a leafy grotto, and the celestial rays that cut through the foliage look merely like a trick of the afternoon sunlight. But Siobhan is missing from her bed the next morning, and soon after, her alarmed mother discovers that her image has also dissolved from the painting.
The unsolved case of Siobhan is one of the subjects of a show of dioramas being prepared by American artist Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman, White Reindeer) around the theme “Lost Souls of Ireland.” But when her gallerist (Karrie Cox) gives an art critic a sneak peek, the writer’s scathing pre-opening review dismisses the work as “arts and crafts” exploitation. Melanie is crushed by the charge that her sculptures are insensitive to tragedy, adding to the suffering of the priest who was absolved of any wrongdoing in the case but so haunted by the incident that he withdrew from the Church and went into voluntary exile.
A phone call on behalf of that former priest, Alistair Burke (Lalor Roddy), threatens to add to Melanie’s professional and personal difficulties. But the soothing woman on the end of the line assures her that Alistair bears her no ill will. Instead, he wants to fly her to Ireland and commission a new work from her to be sold at auction to his circle of influential art collectors.
All this is bordering on contorted overplotting, but Tully maintains an admirably even hand, his restraint faltering only in the cheesy Celtic pipes of composer Michael Montes’ score during the transition to misty rural Ireland. You half expect a rascally leprechaun or a line of jaunty folk dancers to pop out from behind a rock.
Melanie is met at the airport by lugubrious driver Padraig (David McSavage), who appears to be mute, and then at the secluded 300-year-old estate where she will be staying by Shelly (Helena Bereen), who runs the house and whose connection to Alistair remains opaque. Shelly directs Melanie to the holy sanctuary on the densely wooded grounds that the reclusive former priest wishes her to recreate in a diorama. When she finally meets her host, he is a kind, gentle, melancholy man, confiding in her about his torment away from the prying ears of Shelly.
As lapsed Catholic Melanie’s vivid dreams become increasingly disturbing, blurring with what she finds during her nocturnal wanderings through the labyrinthine house, she begins to regret her impulsive decision to accept the offer. And while the deeply troubled Alistair appears sympathetic to her anxiety, Shelly is soon revealed to be a lot more manipulative and malevolent than she initially seems.
The ensuing creepiness involves a bizarre ritualistic gathering of “art collectors,” bewigged and outfitted in 18th-century attire; miraculous displays of transcendent portraiture; a journey into a parallel dimension; and a self-sacrificing redemption. Not all of it is satisfyingly explained, even within the increasingly woozy logic of the movie. But it remains engrossing and original, building to a series of climactic scenes in which Melanie connects the threads to Siobhan, and perhaps a whole slew of other disappearances. The final moments are just cryptic enough to infuse the ending with a genuine chill.
Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield (Mediterranea, Beatriz at Dinner) shoots both the interiors and the arresting exterior locations with compositional elegance, layering in textures of sepulchral gloom or oneiric dislocation as required.
Tully keeps the thick soundscape of ominous noise and music churning, though favors disquieting undercurrents over the usual jumps and sudden shocks and more potent scares that would have made this a fuller-fledged horror entry. Which is by no means a negative. Leaving behind the minor-key comedy of his last feature, Ping Pong Summer, to return to the studied strangeness of 2011’s Septien, the director has fashioned a film that in many ways is a throwback to vintage Euro Gothic, overriding its occasional borderline campiness with resolute morbidity.
Production companies: Ballymartin, Subotica Productions
Cast: Anna Margaret Hollyman, Lalor Roddy, Helena Bereen, David McSavage, Karrie Cox, Alisha Weir, Bobby Roddy, Mark Lawrence, Sue Walsh
Director-screenwriter: Michael Tully
Producers: George M. Rush, Ryan Zacarias, Wally Hall, Jeffrey Allard, Tristan Orpan Lynch, Aoife O’Sullivan
Executive producers: Bobby Campbell, Marcus Cox, Karrie Cox, Richard C. Jones, Gus Deardoff, Todd Remis, David Moscow, Cheryl Staurulakis, Leo Staurulakis, Le Tong, Todd Traina
Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield
Production designer: Bart Mangrum
Costume designer: Sarajane Ffrench O’Carroll
Music: Michael Montes
Editor: Zach Clark
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)