Studio: XLrator Media
Director: Gerard Johnstone
Writer: Gerard Johnstone
Producer: Luke Sharpe
Stars: Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Ross Harper, Cameron Rhodes, Ryan Lampp, Mick Innes, Bruce Hopkins, Millen Baird, Wallace Chapman, David Van Horn, Nikki Si'Ulepa
Forced to serve a house arrest sentence in her mother’s haunted home, a sassy hoodlum uncovers an odd mystery connecting a ghost to a serial killer.
Horror-comedy is a subgenre that rarely clicks with my personal tastes. I somewhat shamefully admit that it took two viewings and several years spread in between them to finally appreciate “Shaun of the Dead” for what it accomplished by successfully bridging both genres.
Unless the chuckles are seldom employed and even then only subtly, like the barely-there black humor of “Re-Animator” for example, comedy in horror tends to fall into one of two categories. It is usually either on-the-nose spoof or outrageously splattery camp. Both are equally dreadful.
In those cases, finding any of the horrific moments to be scary or entertaining is virtually impossible, rendering any mixture of the two styles to be mostly pointless. So when a movie like “Housebound” comes along to simultaneously satisfy a hunger for horror and a hard-to-please standard for modestly measured laughter, it is a safe bet that New Zealand filmmaker Gerard Johnstone might be on to something.
Kylie Bucknell is a hapless hoodlum whose ATM robbery attempt is thwarted by an errant sledgehammer blow and an unfortunately placed concrete car stop. Worse than any jail term a judge could impose, Kylie is fitted with an ankle bracelet and sentenced to nine months of house arrest under the roof of her well-meaning, but stressfully overbearing mother Miriam.
Despite being old enough to know better, Kylie passes her time in the house by being as uncooperatively obnoxious as a petulant teenager brimming with too much rebellious self-entitlement. The grumpy girl eventually exposes her put-upon mum as a worrywart convinced that their family home has an uninvited guest of the spectral variety. Kylie guffaws at the very idea. Until a grabbing hand from a dark corner of the basement suggests that mom might not be so out of her gourd after all.
Where “Housebound” takes that premise next is through a dizzying gauntlet of zany zigs and zipping zags as Kylie and company uncover the ghostly connection to a creepy hermit living nearby, an unsolved murder from years past, and enough head-scratching twists to give Angela Lansbury a migraine. Combining vengeful ghost and serial killer mysteries with a supposedly haunted home, “Housebound” is like a tongue-in-cheek version of the Vincenzo Natali-helmed “Haunter” (review here) given how much varied genre ground it ambitiously covers.
After its world premiere screening at SXSW, writer/director Gerard Johnstone confessed that his project came together over a lengthy period of trial and error. Johnstone would have an idea for a scene, although not necessarily a story to motivate it, but would shoot it anyway and find a way to fit it in or change it later.
Johnstone lucked out in that serendipity was mostly on his side. His unorthodox method of stitching a narrative out of improvised pieces is partly what gives “Housebound” its quirky charm of firing in so many directions at once. In theory, it should not necessarily work for making a sensible film. Yet somehow, that “anything goes” attitude adds to the movie’s madcap appeal.
It is also this casual approach to developing an identity that keeps the momentum from reaching full speed until well after the first act. “Housebound” bangs into more than one wall while trying to find the curved line it wishes to walk. The time it takes gaining its footing makes for a slow build and casts early doubt that the film will ever develop into anything more than a seemingly dull ghost story with a rudely behaved brat as its centerpiece.
But once Johnstone figures out how it all ties together, in story and in tone, the audience does too. Apprehensions over the shaky beginning start melting when “Housebound” reveals itself to be not so much of a traditionally conceived horror-comedy, but a mystery thriller packed with favorite scary movie setpieces and a sleek racing stripe of organic humor to make the whole thing more aerodynamic.
“Housebound” is not spoofing horror at all really. Nor is it trying to pull any jokes out of being self-aware pastiche. After all, it is only natural that a cursed Teddy Ruxpin, a teeth-clenching use of a cheese grater, and a specter with no respect for bathroom privacy would lead to increasingly bizarre circumstances as oddball characters begrudgingly deal with the supernaturally spiraling hullabaloo on their hands.
“Housebound” has too many gnarled threads of absurdity to ground it in any sort of relatable fantasy, which is why it would never work as a completely serious film. And if it tried too hard to be forcibly funny, then the ghosts, gore, and gags would lose their punch. But using the conscious influences of “People Under the Stairs” and “The Changeling” as well as the unconscious inspiration of “Rear Window,” Gerard Johnstone crafts a smart and fun slice of frightful suspense that finds just the right formula for making screams and laughs blend together effortlessly.
Review Score: 80