“The divine does not reach out to us from a cosmic beyond. It comes from within,” the voice of an older man intones at the start of Michael Tully’s “Don’t Leave Home,” an opening salvo that grows in thematic resonance as much of a statement of intent. It turns out the words belong to Alistair Burke (Lalor Roddy), a man of the cloth in Ireland who resides now in isolation, seemingly haunted by the aftermath of something that happened during his off-hours hobby of painting when a portrait of a young girl named Siobhan Callahan is connected to her disappearance, the evidence being that she leaves no trace on canvas either once she’s physically gone. As such, he’s become an obscure figure, except for a young American artist named Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman) who specializes in dioramas, and on the eve of her latest gallery show, she receives a phone call from Burke’s estate asking if she’d be interested in flying across the Atlantic to do a commission.
The fact that much of this exposition is explained away in gratuitous, information-packed phone calls and artist statements is just one cheeky way Tully is able to have his cake and eat it too with a bewitching homage to Hammer films of the 1970s that manages to feel entirely fresh and intriguing. Although fans of the director will note that no two of his films have looked alike, “Don’t Leave Home” has more of the jagged edges associated with his family freakout “Septien” than the nostalgic “Ping Pong Summer,” except that the craft involved contributes to a slow seduction that becomes a consummate embrace, its hold on an audience as gripping as what takes hold of Melanie. Through an appropriately baroque score from Michael Montes and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield’s exacting compositions, “Don’t Leave Home” is genuinely transporting as much in cinematic terms as it is geographically for American audiences when Melanie makes her way to Ireland, her suspicions aroused as soon as she gets to a humble regional airport where a driver holds up a sign with the curious descriptor “M. Th.”. Things only get stranger from there as Melanie is introduced in short order to Burke’s assistant Shelley and eventually the Father himself, though she is asked to eat dinner alone inside the large, palatial estate, picking at the potatoes in a nondescript stew as she wonders what she’s gotten herself into.
Hollyman’s keen ability to show curiosity and skepticism simultaneously makes Melanie a perfect surrogate as Tully dives deeper into this mysterious reality he’s created, a bit magical in the unknown, but also quite foreboding. Rowdy sets the tone for such an environment, inviting enough with the warmth you might expect of a priest you’d confess your sins to, but leaving a slight sinisterness about him. In some ways, “Don’t Leave Home” could be seen as an inverse of those qualities, cloaked in the garb of a psychological horror film while feeling profound in reaching toward actually finding God in the work as you come to understand what Tully is chasing after as an artist, watching two peers from opposite ends of the earth seek out inspiration for their work. Touching upon nerves in the subconscious, the film doesn’t only draw out primal terror from the fear of being a foreigner in unknown territory, but perhaps more impressively, excites with the possibility of seeing something the rest of the world can’t and the burden that comes with bringing it to light. Although Tully likely used vintage lenses to get the look of “Don’t Leave Home” just right, his vision is entirely original and despite the warning of the title, it’s well worth going for the ride.
“Don’t Leave Home” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the Sarasota Film Festival on April 14th at 8 pm and April 20th at 9:45 pm at the Regal Hollywood 11 Cinemas.