Housebound comes with quite the seal of approval from none other than Sir Peter Jackson. That will come as little surprise to those familiar with his pre-Tolkein career, as he was best known back in the day for creating very funny (and record breakingly gory) horror comedies such as Bad Taste, Braindead and The Frighteners. These mixed in expert use of horror tropes, especially then contemporary trends, with a fond film nostalgia, and an unmistakably Kiwi brand of humour. Housebound then is certainly a strong successor to that tradition, and whether writer/director Gerard Johnstone ends up having the kind of career trajectory Jackson did remains to be seen, this film at least proves he has a tremendous amount of talent that deserves to go far.
Teenaged Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly), after an ATM robbery gone spectacularly awry, has been sentenced to eight months’ house arrest back at her mother Miriam’s (Rima Te Wiata) sprawling house in the countryside. The situation is tense for both of them, but soon there are other matters to deal with besides who has control of the TV when it’s time for Coronation Street. Mum has said for a number of years that she’s felt a supernatural presence in the house, which Kylie has always just dismissed, but events do lead her to believe there actually is something going on. Together with Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), her probation assistant turned amateur ghost hunter, they try to get to the bottom of the apparent haunting, only to find themselves getting very out of their depths very fast. But when what’s going on becomes clear, who will believe Kylie given her criminal history?
Horror comedies are often said to be very hard to get right, but in actuality it’s all down to one key formula. The horror aspect should be played absolutely straight, never for a joke, and the humour should come from the characters and their response to what’s going on. Housebound gets this absolutely, with its tale of suburban paranoia having a similar feel to Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs. All the characters feel very real and matter of fact in their exchanges. Everyone can sympathise with Kylie and her Mum’s bickering (although you could probably tell a lot about someone based on who they identify with more…), if feels more honest than quite a few family dynamics in film. The other characters all have at least one or two genuinely funny moments, but are more than just their gags, having some real personality to them. Of particular note would be frustrated officer Amos, who has some great chemistry with Kylie at various points.
As for the horror credentials, it’s actually remarkable how well a film that delivers so many laughs can also sustain a prolonged sense of dread. It builds in its scares in a smart, methodical way, building up matters, from simple little creepy stories and background events, to very smartly done jump scares (and not the cheap fake sort; this earns its genuine jumps). It even does something not many modern horror films do well anymore; deliver some of its story revelations like scare scenes. There’s at least one moment early on, when a key part of the house’s history is revealed that is presented just like a film would reveal its monster, as it knows how much this changes the whole tone of what’s happening. It also has plenty of twists and turns to the plot, pulling the rug out from under the audience on more than one occasion, always keeping you guessing. Now some might not like the way that matters go on a different expected, that instead of the more dread filmed conventional way a haunting movie would end, this does something utterly different. However, the film has earned by that point enough goodwill to make its shift into full on gory horror action feel far more natural, and in the process revealing the true point of the story. In fact, its final act has more than a bit in common with another underrated 90s horror flick, but to say which one really would be a spoiler.
Housebound is actually slated for an American remake, pencilled in for some time next year; it’s really hard to say why one would bother though. It’s not perfect (at 107 minutes, it might be a bit long), but a bigger budget is unlikely to improve on what already works. Besides, this thing is New Zealand to the core, which is a big part of its charm, taking that to the US will lose a lot. Definitely check out this version; it’s a ton of fun, with its heart in the right place, and has some of the best deadpan humour in horror in quite a while. Now let’s all quietly hope that the remake stays in the depths of development hell… forever.