Housebound (2014)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-10-04 03:12

Written and Directed by: Gerard Johnstone
Starring: Morgana O'Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"You know, the closed mind is the worst defense against the paranormal, Kylie. What are you gonna do against a hostile spirit? You just gonna crack jokes?"
"No, I am going to smash it in the face."
"You cannot punch ectoplasm."

Housebound is a fantastic exercise in controlled chaos. If you heard someone recount its zany plot developments, you’d swear its filmmakers were making it up as they went along. Rarely does a film zig and zag from point A to point Z so breathlessly and surprisingly. By the end, Housebound is such a different movie than it was when it started that you’re compelled to marvel at Gerard Johnstone’s command over tone and pacing. Housebound is the sort of film that threatens to get away from you in a hurry, but he confidently guides it through various modes and sub-genres without skipping a beat.

We open with a small-scale heist—more specifically, a botched attempt to smash an ATM by Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly), a troubled young lady making yet another brush with the law. Her latest transgression results in a judge placing her on house arrest in her childhood home, where her mother (Rima Te Wiata) and stepfather (Ross Harper) still reside. Feeling understandably suffocated, she lashes out and closes herself off; she can’t help but be intrigued, however, when she hears her mother’s voice on a local radio show babbling about the spirits haunting her house. Outwardly, she dismisses the notion and laughs it off as the workings of an overactive imagination. The mix of surprise and fear in her eyes when her mother reminds her she, too, once spun similar tales as a child suggests otherwise.

And then Kylie endures a wild sequence of sentences that can begin with the phrase “and then…” Secrets about her home rest in the cellar, buried beneath mounds of junk, some of it belonging to her mother, some if it of unknown origin. All of it piles up for a cluttered mise-en-scene to emphasize Kylie’s confinement. Whether or not the house is actually haunted almost seems irrelevant considering how oppressive it is: you can practically feel the dust and dirt that have caked up over the decades, and the paint peeling from its dingy walls suggests a hidden past. The air outside of the house is thick with desolation, as Kylie notes her family lives in the sort of arid backcountry most normal people breeze right through.

For a while, Housebound complies with the expectations of such a setting, as Kylie rummages through the dustier corners of the place, uncovering mysterious artifacts, such as vintage mental health books and a possessed teddy bear. Johnstone stages the film like a classic haunted house tale, full of prowling camerawork exploring dark corners and tight spaces, capturing the fleeting, spectral glimpses of faces in the background. If Johnstone were so inclined, Housebound could be a killer variation on a familiar theme: Kylie is a brusque but plucky protagonist investigating some sordid lore involving the unrested spirit of a tragic, unsolved slaying from decades ago.

But something funny happens when Kylie summons authorities to her home with her bizarre tale: her probation officer, Amos (Glen-Paul Waru) is quick to believe the story and eager to help out. Conveniently, he’s a paranormal enthusiast, and, by the end of the week, he’s rigged the house with all sorts of gadgets and is committed to unraveling the mystery alongside Kylie. Together, they form an odd couple and embark on a sort of Hardy Boys investigation that takes them from Rear Window to The People Under the Stairs.

Navigating this outlandish turn of events with a screwy, offbeat verve, Housebound bounds from ghosts to suspicious neighbors to ghastly intruders without pausing to so much as acknowledge how out of control it is. In the spirit of its Kiwi predecessors, Housebound charges ahead relentlessly, finding dark humor in even the most lurid developments. When Amos warns Kylie that even her best calculated plans are likely to blow up in her face, it’s the setup to a punchline with eruptions of blood and disemboweled guts. Demented moments mark it as the logical successor to Jackson’s Dead Alive, even if it doesn’t quite aspire to hit the same lunatic, gore-soaked heights.

You sense Johnstone’s reverence for Jackson’s seminal film in his commitment to chiseling out indelible characters from this mound of carnage. O’Reilly’s performance is one that has her gradually soften from a reticent brat to someone who finally gives a shit about something besides herself, a transition that occurs in small gestures: a solo tap dancing routine in her room to recapture some lost innocence from her youth, or a chat with her stepfather as the two attempt to fix a broken tool. Both her stepfather and mother are so sweet that you almost can’t believe Kylie’s frustrations with them: rather than completely sympathize with Kylie by painting her parents in broad, monstrous strokes, they’re an entirely sweet couple that, quite frankly, she may not deserve. Harper’s face always seems to border on an apology he doesn’t even owe, while Te Wiata is a capital “M” Mom in her dogged quest to find the good in everything—including Kylie’s ankle monitor.

Only the eventual reunion between mother and daughter qualifies as remotely predictable, yet Housebound takes a scenic route through buried secrets, childhood trauma, and exploding heads to arrive there. Reconciliation requires several pounds of flesh, as Kylie and her mother’s bond is resealed first with blood, then with bemused laughter. Beneath the gruesome foundation of Housebound lies a big, beating heart unafraid to mix absurd splatstick with genuinely touching moments. It’s a film whose infectious love for its own characters—including the misunderstood weirdoes that inexplicably become a part of our lives—is like a rug that ties together a room. In this case, it also covers up the bloodstains you can’t help but giggle at as they continue to peek through.

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