Michael Tully’s Don’t Leave Home is a Gothic story that embraces many traditional storytelling mechanisms, while also bringing in a good mix of nontraditional elements. In many ways, it is a very conventional European ghost story, but he mixes it with meditations on Catholicism, history and legend to create something that feels very new at the same time.
The film opens in Ireland in the 1980s, as artist and priest Father Alistair Burke paints a portrait of young Siobhan. Soon after the portrait’s completion, the girl disappears from her parents’ home, never to be seen again. At the same time, her image strangely disappears from Father Burke’s painting.
In present-day America, artist Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman) has grown fascinated with Siobhan’s story (as well as other similar tales of mysterious disappearances) and has used them as a basis for her latest art exhibition. Father Burke (Lalor Roddy) hears about her work and takes a particular interest in a piece focusing on Siobhan. He commissions a new work from Melanie and invites her to Ireland to complete the project.
When she arrives, she finds herself in strange surroundings. She is brought to an isolated house in the countryside, complete with a creepy caretaker and a stern woman managing all of the Father Burke’s affairs. Burke himself does not appear until Melanie has already been at the house for a couple of days. He mysteriously keeps to himself in his quarters at the end of a long hallway, and Melanie has been given explicit instructions not to disturb him. As Melanie goes about her work, she does so with the sinking suspicion that her arrival has corresponded with something sinister, and that something strange is going on within the walls of the seemingly peaceful home.
The film is very European in style, drawing from the visuals and feel of Gothic tales of the 1970s. The story takes its time to develop, dropping hints of what is to come without fully giving anything away. It would be right at home with the Hammer classics, and you could easily Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee taking on the role of Burke.
Tully creates something here that is at once familiar and fresh. The concept of strange happenings taking place in a remote house in the U.K. is certainly not alien, but Tully adds into that concept examinations of Catholicism, guilt and redemption. The film is not focused on simply delivering a ghost story. Though the truth of Siobhan’s disappearance is much stranger than anyone would guess, the film is actually at its strongest when it is layering on subtleties and metaphors, creating something far more complex than the audience might have anticipated.
Don’t Leave Home is a strange mix of unnerving, hypnotic and darkly funny, and the way in which it embraces each of these elements is where the film really finds its strength.