In its two hour runtime, Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound has a lot of plot, a lot of ideas, a robust cast of characters, and a lot of gags (both of the splattery and ha-ha varieties, sometimes with significant spillover). This density is part of what makes it a great, refreshing film, but it’s also what makes it a hard film to discuss without spoiling.
The story takes several unexpected digressions, each of them feeling like a riff on a different sub-genre. While never feeling disjointed, this is still a film that can accurately be said to evoke Poltergeist, The People Under the Stairs, and Peter Jackson’s early splatschtick (probably a hacky comparison that every blogger has made, this being a New Zealand production, but not a comparison that’s untrue. In a few shots the blood even has that Dead-Alive pinkness to it, something in the water, maybe?).
Possibly the best, spoilerphobic, way to describe the film is as the ultimate skeptic’s haunted house movie.
The film starts with a botched ATM robbery and concerns a twenty-something screw-up (Morgana O’Reilly) who is court-ordered to (haunted?) house arrest with her kooky mother (Rima Te Wiata) and step-father. While stuck there she does some investigating into the house’s mysterious past. That’s about all the plot synopsis we need to get into.
Housebound is keenly aware of horror tropes and at constant work to subvert them. Take for instance our protagonist. Kylie (O’Reilly, who’s wonderful here) doesn’t hide from threats, she attacks them head on. On paper Kylie may sound reminiscent of You’re Next’s cunningly competent Erin (Sharni Vinson), but this being a straight-up horror-comedy, Kylie’s agency blows right past “strong” and into the realm of “pathologically aggressive.” This virtue/flaw is fun, and even something another character comments on late in the film.
The subversion of horror clichés doesn’t stop with the characters and their upheaval of archetypes, sometimes a joke is made out of strict adherence to clichés. There’s a great bit right near the climax of the film where the pace halts so Kylie’s psychiatrist can define “dissociative personality disorder.” It’s a scene we’ve seen so many times that its inclusion in a film as savvy as Housebound (and where it’s located)becomes something that made me laugh out loud.
It’s important to note that while a comedy, Housebound is not a parody. What sets it apart from something like Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil or Cabin in the Woods (both movies I like a lot, so don’t take that as a dismissal) is that Housebound’s aware of horror tropes, but its comedy and plot is not shackled to them. The film is never too in-jokey, never does disservice to the story or characters in order to service something “meta”, and never feels like a movie your friends who aren’t “into” horror wouldn’t get.
The film’s broader slyness is perfectly encapsulated in the character of Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), Kylie’s personal rent-a-cop security detail and, it turns out, a paranormal investigator in his spare time. It would be easy for the film to treat Amos like a total joke, and the first scene where he whips out his tape recorder and tries to sweep the house for EVP is very funny in a “get a load of this guy” kinda way. But Johnstone grants Amos a usefulness, sweetness, and competency that it’s hard to give real-life reality show “ghost hunters” (even if the film is totally against the idea that the cosmic mysteries of the universe will somehow be cracked wide open by a bunch of guys with chinstraps and cassette tapes).
Are there some jokes that don’t land? Some moments that clunk? Certainly, but what’s remarkable in a film that feels this quietly ambitious is how much of the material works. And for a debut feature to have this much going for it, I can’t wait to see what Johnstone does next.
See it before the (already announced) remake so you can feel superior.
P.S. Saw this while doing a little editorial research and it’s a pretty sick burn:
If Housebound sounds up your alley (especially if you want the right to some guilt-free whining), drop the couple bucks to see the film legitimately.
P.P.S. Now that I say that I must say: I bought this via Xbox’s Xbox Video app (because it was slightly cheaper than Vudu) and the streaming was AWFUL. The service froze at key moments, the audio continuing, so I had to rewind several times. It really kills the momentum of a movie and if streaming is truly the future of content distribution these services have got to sort crap like this out.
Then, to doubly kick myself, I saw that the movie was already out on blu-ray (as an amazon retailer exclusive, which is a new one on me) for just a couple bucks more than my sub-par digital purchase. If you’re going to go the route of buying over renting: go with the disc. Support physical media because streaming is the devil.