SXSW Review: DON’T LEAVE HOME Is An Admirable Indie Eurohorror Riff

Michael Tully brings an atmospheric art film to life with a Nic Roeg flair.

The central premise of Don't Leave Home – writer/director Michael Tully's Eurohorror homage to pastoral British genre cinema and the work of Nic Roeg (Don't Look Now) – focuses on an artist, Melanie (Anna Margaret Hollyman), making tiny dioramas based on a mysterious disappearance that occurred in Ireland during the mid-'80s. When the subject of her work – a retired priest (Lalor Roddy) whose painting of a little girl saw its own centerpiece vanish at the exact moment the child also disappeared from this human plane (quite literally, on both counts) – commissions an original design and flies the creator overseas to help birth this new vision, it's difficult for Melanie to say "no". After all, her latest exhibition just got bombed in a preshow ambush by the area's biggest critic, and she's up to her ears in debt. Despite the strange circumstances, this could be the break Melanie desperately needs. 

As you can probably guess, this invitation turns out to be a trap, as Tully – along with cinematographer Wyatt Garfield (who shot the filmmaker’s previous feature, Ping Pong Summer) – tirelessly endeavors to deliver an aura of menace with every misty frame. Old women appear in windows (the image captured with quick zooms), groves featuring religious shrines in their center are shrouded in fog, and the former servant of God is totally intimidated by the domineering woman (Helena Bereen) whom he lives with on an isolated country estate. Tully is clearly an astute student of Eurohorror cinema, as we can feel both the British influences, plus touches of Italian schlockmeisters like Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino, seeping into this hazy, dread-stuffed miasma. 

An extended prologue – shot in an Ozu-esque 4:3 aspect ratio – sets the stage for not only a dreamlike story set in the provincial Irish countryside, but also the formal playfulness Tully is going to employ to tell this tale. The ominous atmosphere grips us from the moment Melanie steps off the plane, is scooped up by a crusty mute butler (David McSavage, bringing some serious Suspiria vibes to the table), and transported to the creaky old dynasty, whose antiquated architecture is somewhat softened by the green pastures that surround it. Once inside, every nook and cranny of the home is crammed with horror film detail, ghosts seemingly desiring to reveal themselves without warning from each dusty crevice.

The ensuing melodramatic middle of Don’t Leave Home is awash in idiosyncrasies, the best of which involve a strange ritualistic gathering of "art collectors", bewigged and costumed in eighteenth-century attire, upsettingly accurate displays of Barry Lyndon portraiture. There’s also a journey into a parallel dimension – mutedly echoing the droning fear of Picnic At Hanging Rock – all climaxing with a selfless act of redemption. Like the somewhat thin plot, Tully is again focusing more on establishing a vibe rather than coherence, allowing his picture to wash over you like a chilly Fall dew. This would be perfect October viewing, while the leaves change outside and the closed windows keep you safe from the cold, Don’t Leave Home works double-time to ensure a shiver still creeps up your spine.

Like the movies made by these aforementioned maestros, Don't Leave Home hopes to really draw you in via its murky dream logic and haunted locales. For those looking for a more straightforward narrative approach, this may be an issue (as the film meanders and drifts at times, while still floating on a consistently sinister frequency). However, viewers familiar with the staples Tully is paying tribute to will find a whole lot to admire about this lo-fi labor of love, its rhythm discovered by editor Zach Clark (who, along with White Reindeer star Hollyman, mark the production as quite the family affair). In short, Don't Leave Home is playing a distinct number, but those who already enjoy this tune will more than likely be lulled into a trance by its rather hypnotic play on cult cinema mainstays.