New Zealand. Directed by Gerard Johnstone, 2014. Starring Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Ti Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Ross Harper, Cameron Rhodes, Ryan Lampp. 107 minutes.
Something about New Zealand seems particularly conducive to horror-comedy, from the early works of Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, Dead Alive) to the mid-2000s cult classic Black Sheep (not the Chris Farley one, obviously) and this year’s What We Do in the Shadows. Add to that list Housebound, a satirical look at haunted-house tropes that’s garnered a fair amount of attention since making its way to the States last October.
Morgana O’Reilly stars as Kylie, a petty criminal who finds herself sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home under the care of her estranged mum Miriam (Rimi Ti Wiata) and stepdad Graeme (Ross Harper). Long-buried memories find themselves dragged back up to the surface when Kylie discovers Miriam has always regarded the house as being haunted–a prospect that excites Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), a security guard assigned to Kyle who also fancies himself a paranormal investigator. Their investigations turn up a series of revelations, each wilder than the last, about the house’s history–particularly a murder that occurred in Kylie’s bedroom, not long before she and her family moved in.
First-time writer/director Gerard Johnstone puts his focus squarely on the characters and their eccentricities: brooding Kylie, well-meaning if somewhat clueless and overbearing Miriam, quiet Graeme, overeager supernatural sleuth Amos, not to mention a gallery of supporting characters including a creepy neighbor and an ineffectual social worker (played, respectively, by Mick Innes and Cameron Rhodes). It’s an eclectic but endearing assembly of comedic personalities, matched by a skilled cast.
Two performers deserve particular attention. O’Reilly’s performance is, in many ways, the key to Housebound. Kylie’s petulant childishness should make her hard to sympathize with, even when she’s funny, and while Johnstone develops her into the sort of protagonist people should think about when they hear the phrase “strong female protagonist” O’Reilly puts us on her side in short order, and she’s easy to like even when she’s eating all the meatloaf, hogging the television, or blowing up an ATM.
Ryan Lampp is the other standout performer. He comes into the story about halfway through the film and I don’t want to spoil his character too much, but his physical performance is one of the delights of the latter phases of the film and he’s a joy to watch whenever he’s on-screen.
The script’s emphasis on character, dialog, and individual set pieces unfortunately comes at the expense of plot: after a strong start, the story peters out somewhat going into the second act, as Kylie’s house arrest and electronic ankle bracelet become more of a narrative burden. Johnstone proves a bit reluctant to follow through with the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. For example, without giving too much away, Kylie does something that should have drastic repercussions for a person in her situation but nothing much seems to happen to her as a result of it. I’m willing to cut the film, which is at its heart an absurdist comedy, some slack in this department, but since Kylie’s criminal history and incarceration are such a central part of the film’s premise I feel it’s an undeniable flaw.
While Housebound does have a few flaws, they don’t keep the film from being an enjoyable, witty romp. For the most part, this is how you do horror-comedy right.