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March 13, 2018

Indie Filmmaker Michael Tully Turns To Horror For ‘Don’t Leave Home’ [SXSW Review]

The opening sequence of Michael Tully‘s “Don’t Leave Home” is the best horror movie I’ve seen in 2018 to date. The last shot is the best ending to a horror movie I’ve seen in 2018 to date. Everything sandwiched in between them is a mixed bag, which is baffling given how good those first six minutes are and how haunting that final image is. Even the credits crawl at the start of the film has a way of adhering to the soul, being scary, ominous, and most of all tactile, things that every standout horror movie should aspire to be. If you didn’t know any better, you might be tempted to reach out and brush the screen with your fingertips: Tully’s aesthetic is textured, its visual surface replete with lived-in detail.

But the problem with “Don’t Leave Home” has nothing to do with its surface and everything to do with its interior. The film begins in 1986 Ireland, where a young girl named Siobhan (Alisha Weir) has her portrait painted by a priest, Alistair Burke (played in the film’s past tense by Bobby Roddy, and in its present by Lalor Roddy, which is either a great bit of father-son casting or the rarest of coincidences), as commissioned by Siobhan’s parents. It’s a nice portrait, too, until the next morning when Mom and Dad wake up to find Siobhan is missing, not just from home but from the painting itself. Cut to today and Melanie (Anna Margaret Hollyman), an American artist, is putting together a gallery of dioramas based on missing persons stories gathered from all over Ireland, Siobhan’s included.

Melanie’s work attracts attention from Shelly (Helena Bereen), who tells Melanie that Burke, who went into self-imposed exile after Siobhan vanished into thin air, would like to not only meet with and speak to Melanie, but pay her handsomely for a new, original piece from her to sell at an auction of high-flying art aficionados. So she travels to the Emerald Isle, telling no one of her plans, of course, and meets Shelly and Burke, and starts putting together her latest masterpiece on their behalf; simultaneously, she begins having straight-up horrible dreams, dreams within dreams, really, and also observing all-purpose freaky stuff in her waking hours.

Something isn’t right at the Burke estate, Shelly, for starters, and possibly her laconic driver, Padraig (David McSavage), and let’s just say everything else for good measure; “Don’t Leave Home” is set against a backdrop of eerily beautiful woodlands and a disused manse that appears to have been constructed by deranged occultists with no greater goal in mind than creeping the bejeesus out of their visitors. The film is designed to maximize the audience’s sense of unease at all times, with every detail either rousing our suspicion or making our arm hairs stand up on end. As approaches go, Tully’s is effective, keeping us in a constant state of paranoia and fear for Melanie’s circumstances. Evil is out to get her, but does evil look like a hangdog cleric and a kindly old lady with a tea habit?

Granted, as horror movie protagonists go, Melanie is one bad decision away from taking a jaunt to the basement to check out that inexplicable bumping sound; she tells no one of her trip to Ireland at the request of Shelly, which is about as red a red flag as red flags get. Also grant that “Don’t Leave Home” clearly means to invoke Ireland’s history of disappearances involving women, and if that kind of real-world basis isn’t a superb basis for a horror movie, nothing is. (Besides, the horror genre is built upon characters making dumb life choices in service to shocks and thrills.) Tully ups the disturbing factor quickly, disrupting our grasp on reality as well as Melanie’s. We’re forced, along with her, to question what we’re seeing on screen before us, to wonder whether the imposing cloaked figure she keeps encountering in her nightmares is just a bogeyman haunting her imagination or a premonition of dangers yet to be faced.

And it would have been great if Tully could have presented that determination with sharper clarity. “Don’t Leave Home” falters in large part because of internal uncertainties in the shape of motifs and ideas that never quite build to anything satisfying or meaningful. Much of what makes the film’s opening gel so well is its consistency of mood, atmosphere, and logic; Tully tells a tale with little dialogue and less plot, but the parts all make perfect sense on their own. Better still, they’re utterly terrifying when taken as a whole. There’s no reason the rest of the film should behave differently, but once we get into the narrative proper, the aesthetic changes. The individual parts work, in fits and spurts, and the sum total doesn’t.

“Don’t Leave Home” is a potentially major movie in need of a few minor but key overhauls. Storywise, Tully has a strong sense of what the film is about and where he wants to take it, but his direction fails him: Once he gets himself into a scene, he’s not always sure of how to get himself out once the scene has done its job. You get the sense he’s always on the lookout for an eject button, whether in the form of ill-defined phantasms or overwrought editing techniques. But the best elements of “Don’t Leave Home” – its foreboding tone, its photography, and Roddy Sr.’s soulful, remorseful performance as Burke – override its head-scratching missteps. If the film falls dramatically short of its most immediate reference points (“The Witch,” “The Wicker Man,” and basically any Peter Cushing movie you can name offhand), it remains a distinctly spooky pleasure on its own merit. [B-]

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