Don’t Leave Home never finds a way to strike a balance between the real and the surreal.
An atmosphere of creeping dread can work wonders for horror, but rarely can tone carry a film on its own. Writer-director Michael Tully’s ambitious yet ultimately underwhelming supernatural thriller Don’t Leave Home adds a compelling premise to its ominous mood: A young girl, whose religious experience before a Virgin Mary statue at a verdant grotto was painted by an artistic priest, vanishes the same night that her image disappears from the painting. And yet with a heavy-handed and expository script, wooden acting and dull, lengthy shots with an often inert camera, Tully’s film spins its wheels and doesn’t come close to offering the same horrific bite as the similarly atmosphere-driven Hereditary achieved earlier this year.
Comparisons to Ari Aster’s acclaimed debut film are particularly apt given that, like Toni Collette’s Annie, the protagonist of Don’t Leave Home, Melanie (Anna Margaret Hollyman), is also an artist who specializes in miniatures and dioramas. As the American artist ventures to the misty Irish countryside to complete a commissioned work that involves the statue where the girl disappeared, she encounters a domineering housekeeper (Helena Bereen), who seeks to control her access to and interactions with Father Burke (Lalor Roddy), the feeble former priest who, decades earlier, painted the missing girl. He’s so “haunted by the ‘evil miracle’,” as Melanie puts it during an expository shot of her computer screen, that he gave up the priesthood and lives as a recluse.
As Melanie sets about her work of sculpting a miniature of the grotto, strange sights befall her and she experiences a series of hallucinations that even involve two dream-within-a-dream fake-outs. Relying primarily on natural lighting and vintage architecture and décor throughout, Tully successfully creates a stark, sinister atmosphere but doesn’t do much with it. Melanie shares info-dump discussions with Father Burke, who seems wary of the overtly ominous housekeeper. Her increasingly odd experiences at the creepy manor include what may or may not involve some Get Out-like secret society malfeasance. But the hallucinatory moments—at one point, Melanie sees her doppelgänger in a window and then moments later finds herself peering out from that same window—too often feel contrived.
Whereas Hereditary’s bizarre otherworldly elements are tethered to grievous real-world trauma enacted upon its lead, Don’t Leave Home never finds a way to strike a balance between the real and the surreal. As a character, Melanie remains largely dimensionless, a result of both a stiff performance by Hollyman and the script’s clunky dialogue. The evil that lurks within the manor and its grey, foggy grounds remains far too vague and undefined, the hallucinations too random, to propel the narrative toward any meaningful payoff, leaving Don’t Leave Home often feeling tedious and muddled. Effective horror is frequently derived from the liminal state between sleep and wakefulness, but Tully’s film blurs that line of dream logic to the point of unintelligibility. For a film that desperately grasps at art-house gravitas, Don’t Leave Home’s story about uncanny paintings and sculptures feels limply artless.