If you’ve got a Halloween hankering for an unconventionally ominous horror tale—one sprinkled with ample helpings of daft comedy—this haunted house tale more than fills your plate with eccentric scares. It’s a great gift for the holidays, too. For that special someone, not necessarily the kiddies. “Housebound” offers up gut-busting portions of fun and finesse, courtesy of first-time feature director-writer-editor Graham Johnstone (co-creator of the New Zealand sitcom “The Jacquie Brown Diaries”). There’s a cast of offbeat characters (some with more than a few screws loose, others with reserved pluck and fortitude), who might remind you of their British cousins in “Shaun of the Dead.” And there’s the house in the title, with an abundance of rooms (some hidden), creaking floors, unwelcome guests, and all.
Often, whether a film rises or falls to the occasion can be determined within its first few minutes. This festival favorite (as it was at the recent SpookyFest) pulls at the brass ring just over a minute in, with a grand belly laugh (that’s from me) as a hapless duo’s night-time attempt at an ATM smash-and-grab goes comically, and fatally, awry. The remaining perp, a frustrated Kylie Renee Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly), fleeing the scene, gets stuck on a parking lot curb. Kylie, no stranger to drug and alcohol abuse—or the myriad of ineffective treatment programs she has been pushed through—gets sentenced by the court to eight months imprisonment. In her mother’s home. Hence the “bound” in the title.
So, as a wink-wink, amusingly counter-intuitive, threatening score (thank you, Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper) plays over the not-so-prodigal daughter’s return to Bulford (“jewel of the twin coast highway” and perhaps a sister city to Twin Peaks), we get a jump-out-of-your-seat introduction to Miriam (Rima Te Wiata). Mum is a curly-haired loquacious crackpot in a household also featuring soft spoken step-dad Graeme (Ross Harper). All the whispers she’s been hearing for decades, the things moving about on their own, and the power fluctuations, lead her to believe that supernatural beings are afoot (or so Miriam reveals on a call to a radio chat show). The furnace has been broken for years, too. Soon, Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the somewhat oafish yet concerned security guard who monitors Kylie’s ankle bracelet, reveals an interest in helping unearth the dastardly goings-on that have surrounded 57 Lynfield Road. It hasn’t all been a bright-and-shiny bed-and-breakfast, as Kylie has been lead to believe of the home’s previous owners.
There is no love lost between ditsy mother and distraught daughter during the stress-filled forced occupation. It’s fun to watch their relationship change. The film’s mood gets infectiously giddy as more characters are brought in with a frightful sneer here, a stomach-rumbling basso note there. A nasty-looking, critter-killing neighbor, an annoying court-appointed psychologist, a skittish, wild child hermit, a three-quarter-scale Jesus, a stuffed teddy bear, and maybe the ghost of a teenage girl stabbed 67 times with a carving fork, all get brought into the action in Johnstone’s witty screenplay, with a lovingly constructed, explosive climax offering riffs on various thriller themes and never-stay-dead endings.
The low-light and fluid photography (nicely capturing cigarette smoke wafting through the air) plays nicely against the home’s musty, cramped interior, lending to the air of dread…and comedy. Johnstone sets a great pace and tells an absorbing story. The sound effects have a nice eerie pitch. He fashions little scenes with grin-worthy aplomb, especially one with Kylie sitting on the toilet. Or dealing with a creaky cabinet door. Or pulling a denture out of someone’s mouth. Deadpan humor (occasionally bloody) ensues… to mirthful results. “Housebound” is terrifyingly funny. If it’s playing at a theatre near you (it’s already on VOD), it’s worth a ticket to share the communal terror and laughter.