“Don’t Leave Home” has been termed an Irish Catholic “Get Out,” and also merits comparisons to “The Wicker Man” (the original, not the messy remake). But those slow-burning movies eventually build toward four-alarm fires, in terms of both satire and suspense, whereas Michael Tully’s feature is content to smolder. This intriguing tale of an American artist drawn to the other side of the Atlantic for a sinister commission peaks in a modest way about two-thirds through, then ambles on to a wan resolution without ever really explaining its central mystery. The result is a diverting-to-a-point curio whose nice atmospherics and good performances ultimately don’t add up to quite enough to satisfy the constructs of horror, allegory, satire — or anything else.
Following a prologue in which a young girl disappears — both in life and from the canvas — after a priest paints her praying image, we skip forward several decades to the present day United States. Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is a visual artist whose latest show is inspired by 30 years of similar unsolved disappearances in one region of rural Ireland; she’s created a series of diorama miniatures depicting the sites where each victim was last seen. Unfortunately, the gallery owner’s attempt to get some advance publicity results in a damning review before the show even opens, a serious blow to Melanie’s career.
Licking her wounds while tipping the bottle, she’s surprised to hear from a representative for the painter-priest who himself vanished (albeit voluntarily) — he became a recluse after several of his subjects went missing, though police cleared him of any criminal suspicion. It seems Father Alistair (Lalor Roddy) has heard of the American exhibit, and far from feeling exploited, he approves of Melanie’s work. Via housekeeper/minder Shelley (Helena Bereen), he invites Melanie to create a new piece, and to sell others to the wealthy European collectors to whom he purportedly has access.
Met at a regional airport by the Lurch-like Padraig (David Andrews Jr., better known by comedic stage name David McSavage), Melanie is driven deep into the Irish countryside to a handsome, isolated estate. Her hosts are friendly but a bit odd. At night, strange noises abound, and stranger visions soon haunt our protagonist’s dreams. When things get a little too weird she attempts to make an early exit, but is reluctantly persuaded to stay just one more night, until after the “collector’s auction.” Choosing to remain is, of course, a big mistake: By this point, we’ve pretty well guessed that Melanie herself is the latest acquisition in an otherworldly “collection.”
“Don’t Leave Home” is a considerably more elegant enterprise than Tully’s prior features, the laboriously eccentric dysfunctional-family comedy “Septien” and broad teenage nostalgia piece “Ping Pong Summer.” Here, DP Wyatt Garfield’s compositions lend a creepy fairy-tale tinge to attractive indoor and outdoor settings; and Michael Montes’ score toys usefully with traditional Irish instrumentation and melodies. Hollyman is entirely credible as a mid-career artist, settled in her habits if insecure otherwise. Roddy is particularly good imbuing the gentle cleric, bossed around by Bereen’s increasingly imperious Shelley, with a certain tortured pathos.
But Tully’s script feints back just when it seems to be hitting full stride, stranding protagonist and narrative in a limbo that just isn’t very interesting or eventful. Wavering between supernatural whimsy and horror, the film never really commits to either — nor to any tangible commentary, satirical or otherwise, on religion or art. The result feels like yet another in the long history of movies that fail to successfully expand to feature length an idea that would be more appropriate for a half-hour “Twilight Zone” episode.