Michael Tully has built one of the more unusual filmographies over the past decade, veering from the druggy thriller “Cocaine Angel” to the documentary “Silver Jew,” the twisted family drama “Septien” and the coming-of-age comedy “Ping Pong Summer.” With “Don’t Leave Home,” he fuses many of those storytelling instincts into a fascinating whole, with a slow-burn thriller set in the Irish countryside. With a premise that suggests “Rosemary’s Baby” through the specter of Catholic guilt, and a kooky gothic setting right out of “The Addams Family,” this bizarre atmospheric horror effort hails from familiar storytelling traditions while remaining unpredictable throughout.
“Don’t Leave Home” opens with a spectacular prologue seemingly exhumed from another era. Shot in the tight box of the Academy ratio with no dialogue, the ’80s-set sequence follows a priest in the Irish countryside as he paints a young girl sitting by a tree. The light changes, an ethereal tone sets in, and she turns translucent; not long after, she disappears entirely, and so does the image of her in the painting. It’s a remarkable snapshot of transcendentalism, like some missing reel from a Carl Dreyer film, and sets the stage for the beguiling mystery to follow.
Cut to the present day. American artist Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman, “White Reindeer”) is laboring over final preparations for her new show, comprised of small-scale replicas of homes where unsolved mysteries occurred. One of them is the urban legend of a missing girl named Siobhan, and the man who painted her — Father Alistair Burke — who left the ministry and went into seclusion after the unexplained disappearance. The project hits a snag when the gallery previews an unfinished version, and Melanie’s work gets slammed by a local critic. However, the publicity yields an unintended new opportunity: Melanie receives a call from a woman on behalf of Father Burke (Lalor Roddy), claiming that the priest would like to purchase her miniature version of his home, and invites her to visit him for a new commission. Faced with bad press and creative block, Melanie figures, what the hell.
This extensive prologue sets the stage for a story that swings between the parochial Irish countryside and some dreamlike echo of the same place. The ominous atmosphere takes hold from the moment Melanie arrives, where she’s picked up by a crusty mute butler (David McSavage, eyes bulging in a quasi-Uncle Fester impression) and taken to the creaky old mansion where weirdness lingers around every corner of the gothic architecture and the dense greenery surrounding it.
She’s greeted by an older woman, Shelly (Helena Bereen), the apparent caretaker of the grounds and a suspicious figure from the outset. Even before Melanie meets Father Burke and his sad, muted gaze, it’s clear that the events of the past continue to haunt her surroundings. Strange whisperings fill the hallways after hours, as the camera glides through shadowy hallways and Melanie finds herself afflicted by nightmares (or are they?) filled with hooded ghouls and self-flagellation. There’s nothing fresh about the ominous atmosphere, but it’s expertly assembled nonetheless, distinguished by first-rate editing that shifts between Melanie’s restless nights and sudden mornings.
In time, Melanie forms a bond with the furtive priest, who harbors secrets he’s afraid to share until it’s too late. The nature of the threat looming over both of their heads remains intangible throughout, a “Twilight Zone”-like enigma that doesn’t totally compute even when Tully reveals it. But that only contributes to the movie’s immersive, otherworldly quality; while a cultish showdown between Melanie and a series of menacing characters arrives right on schedule (and harkens back to Tully’s “Septien”), the derivative moment only sets the stage for a more fascinating examination of one man reckoning with his internal guilt.
Roddy, a virtual unknown to movie audiences, exudes a complex set of emotions with few words, and he grounds the baffling circumstances in a human conflict. Meanwhile, the ever-terrific Hollyman — one of the film festival circuit’s best-kept secrets for some time, with empathetic performances in a range of under-seen projects — oscillates from uneasiness to psychological disarray.
In one of the earliest lines of dialogue, someone declares that “our souls are secret entities from within,” and that profound assertion becomes a key to wrestling with this movie’s fascinating core. The premise seems to be Tully’s ambitious attempt to represent complex religious themes in the mold of a spooky paranormal thriller, and that mission displays further confidence as it moves into a bracing finale. The closing minutes are a completely original sort of survival drama, one that defies precise explanation even as it delivers significant payoff.
Curiously, “Don’t Leave Home” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival just a month after the Sundance unveiling of horror movie “Hereditary,” which also includes small-scale dioramas of the movie’s set pieces as key props. There’s an inherent creepiness to this visual device, a kind of frame-within-the-frame effect that extracts another version of the fictional world for viewers already immersed in it. The resulting impact is self-reflective and unnerving, a reminder that no matter how many replicas one creates, some secrets will always lurk just outside the frame.
“Don’t Leave Home” premiered in the Visions section of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.