Housebound is a New Zealand horror comedy from writer/director Gerard Johnstone, and those of you who can remember back to 2014 probably recall a good amount of buzz generated because of the film. There’s something endearing about the horror humor, reminiscent of Ghostbusters, The Frighteners, and Scooby-Doo combined; but Housebound‘s most successful moments pair jokes with some legitimately spooky paranormal encounters, a tour de force of laughs and scares and a lot of heart.
Johnstone’s script gets over one of the haunted house format’s most formidable hurdles right off the bat – Housebound‘s main character Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) has a reason to stay in the house she believes harbors a ghost. This is often a problem with horror movies in general, where a character’s downfall is simply due to plot contrivances where they refuse to leave the danger zone. Here, Kylie is subject to punishment after she’s caught stealing from an ATM machine – instead of serving any jail time, she’s sentenced to home probation, monitored with an ankle bracelet and subjected to her mother’s (Rima Te Wiata) overlong drones about mundane things. Since Kylie’s forced to live in her old childhood home with her mom, there’s no escaping from the paranormal activity that plagues the house.
It’s a great concept for a comedy, too, because Johnstone gets to run with things that wouldn’t ordinarily work in a straight horror film. For one, his characters are caricatures of real people, played up to great lengths by both O’Reilly and Wiata. Both of them have excellent interplay between each other, they really shine together – especially because O’Reilly’s character Kylie is such a miserable wretch. Housebound may take on supernatural themes, but it’s also a story about figuring out how to live with people with different worldviews. For Kylie, she’s taxed at the notion of having to spend her entire sentence shut up with her annoying mother, her awkwardly quiet boyfriend Graeme (Ross Harper), and the guy who installs and checks on her security device named Amos (Glen-Paul Waru). For Kylie’s mother, the film is about living with Kylie’s unyielding moody persona.
Housebound features a number of quirky encounters between its cast, and despite Kylie’s brooding and often mean-spirited nature, the film has a disarmingly cheery countenance. Rarely does Johnstone take a situation too seriously, even towards the end of the film when the revealed villain – played by teddy bear-gone-bad Cameron Rhodes – spirals into a cat-and-mouse game that leaves most of the main characters wounded and bleeding. Instead, he allows Housebound to document the brutality of the world without the film losing its positive outlook; in fact, the conclusion finds everyone living happily ever after – an unlikely but suitably outlandish finale.
The horror isn’t nearly as palpable as Johnstone’s funniest setpieces, but it does have its moments. The first and second acts make heavy use of what the family consider paranormal entities in the house, with a couple of eerie scenes building up atmosphere before a cathartic joke dispels the tension. Housebound has this method down pat, although to Johnstone’s credit, he manages to incorporate a number of horror tropes into one film. While Housebound appears to be a funny but generic haunted house film on the surface, its twists and turns lead the audience down multiple avenues where Johnstone can spoof alternate horror genres as well.
Housebound‘s one major flaw is, ironically, also a compliment; Kylie’s character is often so wonderfully angsty throughout the first half of the film that it’s hard to really believe her positive change later in the film. It culminates in a corny scene where Eugene (Ryan Lampp), a sheltered man living in the family’s walls, shows Kylie pictures of her throughout her childhood, getting more and more distant as events in her life bring her down. It’s not a terrible scene, but it’s one that relies on a minor character to do all of the work by delivering exposition; it elicits change within Kylie, but not one that’s overly effective for the audience.
Still, the rest of Housebound is quite fun, and Johnstone puts a unique spin on the conventional ghost tale. This horror comedy doesn’t get locked into one idea; the film constantly grows and shifts, its characters doing a lot of the heavy lifting with humorous exchanges thanks to Johnstone’s script. On the surface, Housebound seems like it’s confining itself within the horror genre – but those initial restrictions give way to a breakout horror hit.