In a lot of haunted house movies, the question the audience finds themselves asking is “Why the hell would you stay? Move out, jackass.” A few movies have addressed this problem by having an individual be the one that’s haunted, rather than the house (The Entity, Insidious). Kiwi filmmaker Gerard Johnstone found a more practical solution for his horror-comedy Housebound: the protagonist can’t leave the house or she’ll go to jail. Petulant petty thief Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is under house arrest at her mother’s home. When the paranormal begins to rear its ugly head, Kylie has no choice but to confront it.
Kylie is an angry, bitter young woman. For her, being trapped in a house with her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) is a punishment worse than prison. Her stepfather Graeme (Ross Harper) tries to be civil towards her, but Kylie pushes away any attempts at familial compassion. Sipping beer and watching dopey television shows in between her volatile, court-ordered therapy sessions is all she can stomach. When she learns that her mother has long believed their house to be haunted, Kylie initially shrugs off the idea. But when the unfriendly spirits start targeting Kylie, she enlists the help of Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the laconic security guard keeping tabs on her who happens to have a passion for the supernatural.
Amos and Kylie’s scenes together are fantastic. She’s hostile towards him at first – he is an authority figure after all. As they dig deeper into the secrets of the house, Kylie’s walls start to come down. Through it all, the magnetic Morgana O’Reilly absolutely kills it. Her potent facial expressions alone cut through the other characters and deliver knock out blows of bitterness. The arc she undergoes is entirely believable as well, as she slowly comes to realize maybe everyone isn’t against her. O’Reilly handles it all with fervor and nuance. She’s a regular on some New Zealand TV shows but an unknown here in the States. Housebound will hopefully lead to international roles for her and I damn well hope she does more horror. As for Waru, he’s impossible not to love.
Once Kylie starts playing detective, Housebound plows through a lot of worn horror-comedy ground. However, it does so with so much gleeful indulgence that many of the beats feel fresh. Johnstone knows what a horror audience is expecting and he pounces at all the right moments. There’s a consistent tone that feels like Tales From the Crypt blended with the Kiwis’ deadpan humor. It’s really playful and biting. Even when the mystery starts to unravel and more serious themes are explored, Housebound never takes itself serious enough to ruin the fun and the comedy never takes away from the tense atmosphere Johnstone establishes. In short, the elements are perfectly balanced for its entirety.
Housebound is the first feature for writer-director Johnstone and it announces the arrival of a great new talent in genre filmmaking. He knows his shit and cleverly twists the tropes to create something effectively creepy and wholly unique. Between this and The Babadook, the folks down under are making one hell of an impression on 2014 horror.