These days American haunted-house movies tend to follow a pretty simple formula: People move into a house, start to notice something creepy, and then they spend about an hour wandering around dimly lit hallways to inspect creaky floorboards. Thankfully, Housebound is not an American haunted-house movie. It hails from New Zealand, where apparently they haven't gotten the full memo that haunted-house movies should not deviate from this formula. Sure, it's got a familiar setup, but it's where first-time feature filmmaker Gerard Johnstone takes things next that really turns this into a horror movie that should be on every genre fan's radar.
It's about Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly), an angsty, angry young woman who is sentenced to house arrest after she hilariously fails to rob an ATM. She and her mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata), haven't gotten along for years, and things get even more awkward when Kylie overhears her mother calling into a local radio station to talk about the ghost that haunts their house. She of course uses this as yet another reason to demean her mother, until one night Kylie has an encounter with a stuffed bear that changes everything.
The security guy who monitors her ankle bracelet is brought back out to the house, and as it just so happens, he's a big believer in the supernatural. He immediately begins prepping for a paranormal investigation, and then things get bigger and weirder until it all culminates in a truly memorable showdown between Kylie, Miriam and the spectre that has unknowingly been a part of their lives for over 20 years.
There are two things that immediately separate Housebound from its contemporary haunted-house brethren. First, its sense of humor. This is a funny movie with a deft handle on character and situational comedy. And it's not used for just a bit of levity here and there, rather this is a consistently humorous look at how a handful of oddballs would react when they find themselves in a typical horror-movie scenario. The interplay between all of the characters is sharp and witty, and every moment of disbelief is punctuated by really dynamite performances by everyone on-screen. In particular, Morgana O'Reilly and Rima Te Wiata have a cracking report together, and they're capped off perfectly by the presence of security man Glen-Paul Waru, who ends up being one of the great horror sidekicks in recent memory. And what's most satisfying about the film's sense of humor is that it never, ever boarders on spoof or satire territory. It's not a funny movie because it thinks horror movies are dumb and easy to make fun of; it's funny because it knows what real people - both in the audience and on the screen - would think in the face of an inherently absurd scenario, and it gets playful with those expectations.
Exhibit A: Kylie's stubbornness to acknowledge that her mom may be right about the house being haunted:
The second thing that defines Housebound is its surprisingly elaborate story. We won't get into spoiler territory about what's going in the house, but what's cool about Johnstone's script is that he approaches a typical ghost story almost like it's an old-school slasher movie. There's an adventurous, who-done-it, investigative spirit to it that's missing from most movies that are more concerned with giving you a jump scare every 10 minutes on the dot than making you care about why everyone is in this situation in the first place. If anything, it's this last bit that's the most problematic element of the film. Its story isn't convoluted - it's actually all quite easy to follow - but because there is such a lengthy investigative process of learning the truth behind this house's creaking floorboards, the pacing does feel a bit off as the film progresses. When other movies would be entering their big climax, Housebound is still exploring its fun mystery, but even though the search for the truth may be lengthy, it's always lively. And whether it's a comedic scene or one played for shocks and awes, there's something to appreciate on-screen the entire time.
The production design here is particularly noteworthy, and kind of shames other movies that have no sense of geography and just turn a generic, boring suburban house into a spooky Ikea commercial. The house in question here feels like it has decades of weird history to it and feels like it could be next door to the house in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. In fact, there's a lot about Housebound that feels like it lives next door to Jackson's early horror movies. That's not to say it ever directly rips them off, but it has that same gleeful "let's just go for it and see what happens" spirit to everything, and that separates itself from the sea of other movies that are too afraid to walk their own path. Housebound is a breath of fresh air for the often stale haunted-house genre; a smart, finely acted, appropriately silly and yet totally sincere horror movie made for people who have seen it all and want something a little different.
Following its premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, Housebound has not announced a release date yet. Check out more of our coverage of this year's SXSW Film Festival here.
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