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Don’t Leave Home is a wonderfully atmospheric waking nightmare

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Overlook Film Festival.

Mysterious disappearances, creepy mansions, and characters trapped in locations far from home are all standard horror movie tropes. But in his latest film, Don’t Leave Home, director Michael Tully mixes those elements together along with a good dose of arthouse filmmaking, creating a dreamy, moody blend that becomes something simultaneously familiar and entirely unique.

Modern horror tends to ping between the jump-scare antics of mainstream films and the more minimalist, existential dread of The Witch or Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Both approaches have their own unique appeals, but Tully’s film suggests a third path: a style of genre filmmaking that embraces atmosphere and mood, then uses the tension it creates to explore its own particular themes and fascinations. In the case of Don’t Leave Home, that means ideas about religion and guilt, resulting in a quietly unnerving film that takes a subtle approach and will stick with audiences well after they’ve finished watching.

What’s the genre?

A surreal, Lynchian mind trip of a thriller infused with a hefty dose of religious undercurrents.

What’s it about?

Don’t Leave Home tells the story of Melanie Thomas (Anna Margaret Hollyman), an artist who specializes in making finely detailed dioramas. For her latest project, she’s created a series of pieces documenting famous disappearances in Ireland, including the case of a young girl named Siobhan. Decades ago, Siobhan had her picture painted by Father Alistair Burke (Lalor Roddy), and soon thereafter, she seemed to vanish off the face of the Earth — and the image of her in Burke’s painting disappearing from the canvas as well. While cleared of wrongdoing, Burke was nevertheless tied to what was termed an “evil miracle,” and he went into hiding.

When a local art critic publishes an early review of Melanie’s work, she gets a phone call from an associate of Father Burke’s. He’s interested in buying the diorama about Siobhan’s disappearance, it turns out, and would even like to fly Melanie out to Ireland so she can create a new commissioned piece. Melanie immediately senses something is amiss when she arrives at the gothic mansion Burke calls home. The priest seems to be hiding something, and he gets into periodic disagreements with Shelly (Helena Bereen), the woman who seems to keep Burke’s affairs in order. Soon, Melanie is having bizarre visions of hooded figures, and her strange dreams become increasingly inseparable from reality — until she realizes she may be in very real danger.

What’s it really about?

Writer-director Tully (Septien, Ping Pong Summer) is interested in exploring several themes within the film’s surreal dream logic, but nothing is foregrounded more than good old-fashioned Catholic guilt. Father Burke is tortured by his affiliation with Siobhan’s disappearance, and he seems all too eager to make amends for it — even though authorities concluded he had no part in the girl’s vanishing. Burke is constantly trying to open up to Melanie in what seem like some half-measures of confession. Late one night, she even stumbles upon him whipping himself in atonement over something.

But the film also toys with the idea of art as something that can be used to replace our connection with the real world, rather than just reflect it. Melanie seems to have nothing in her life, save for her work, and the one relationship portrayed in the film — her dynamic with the gallery curator that shows her work — is strained, at best. Over the course of the film, she does learn that the people her work documents are more important than the work itself, but it’s not a lesson that comes easily.

Is it good?

Don’t Leave Home is moody and atmospheric, an arthouse horror film that has the patience to slowly roll out its story without worrying about jump-scares or big plot reveals. To audiences more accustomed to the breakneck scare pace of mainstream horror, that could be a detriment — but the movie’s dreamy imagery and Lynchian confusion have their own appeal. The film was primarily shot on location in Ireland, and Tully and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield use the evocative landscapes and foggy boglands to maximum effect. Settling into the film is like melting into Melanie’s own uncertain frame of mind, and as her creepy visions become more persistent, it’s all too easy to feel the same creeping terror that she’s feeling — particularly as the film takes some more bizarre turns in its latter third.

It’s a familiar formula, calling to mind classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (which Tully is intentionally name-checking with his film’s title). But that doesn’t undercut the pleasures of the journey itself, and Tully is able to craft a hypnotic film that offers its own unique pleasures, even where some of its inspirations are apparent.

What should it be rated?

There’s no gratuitous violence and zero sexual content. This film could easily earn a PG.

How can I actually watch it?

It was recently picked up for theatrical distribution in the US, with a release scheduled for sometime later this year. It will undoubtedly be available for streaming soon thereafter.


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