Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/05/14 05:52:43

"A movie that jumps out at the audience from behind every corner."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Most of the time, you don't really want haunted house movies to get too clever - a twist here and there (although those have become kind of predictable), a particularly horrific backstory - lest they diminish the simple, almost folkloric appeal of the genre. And they definitely shouldn't be funny, lest the already precarious premise collapses completely. That's only most of the time, though, because sometimes someone gets an idea that upends everything and makes it work as brilliantly as "Housebound".

This time around, Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O'Reilly) can't leave the run-down house she grew up in because she's under house arrest, stuck with an ankle bracelet for eight months after her latest ill-fated run-in with the law. Eight months with her annoying mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and Miriam's unassuming second husband Graeme (Ross Harper), and regular visits from the court-appointed shrink (Cameron Rhodes). Oh, and all the weird sounds the house makes, until one trip down to the basement in the middle of the night shakes her skepticism.

That's when writer/director Gerard Johnstone takes what was already a clever way to enforce the genre's rule of not just leaving the house does something funny and unanticipated that opens up new possibilities, and he doesn't stop doing that until the movie's over. There's one moment that feels like it maybe comes out of nowhere, but for the most part the movie earns each of those turns by setting up ways they can fit beforehand and by managing to keep the tone of the movie consistent beyond cranking up the tension. The movie twists, but not into something totally unrecognizable (and, let's face it, not what the viewer paid for).

And while it's surprising and tense, it's still pretty funny - Johnstone slips the absurd and eccentric into the movie without undercutting the parts that are tense. In fact, some of those have the wittiest bits of back-and-forth as the characters kick into high gear or rush through the craziness. Gold is found in Kylie's petty hostility toward her mother and vice versa, groan-worthy lines break the tension without sounding too scripted ("Jesus!"). The film opens with a bit of crazy slapstick and can push the story back for a second when Johnstone comes up with a really good bit.

It's not really up to Morgana O'Reilly to sell the jokes for the most part; Kylie's mostly the cynical one in the middle of the eccentrics. But she doesn't push her character's crankiness very close to the point where the audience would turn on her, playing well off the rest of the cast, and making Kylie genuinely scared even as she's got the air of someone who can handle herself. Rima Te Wiata plays her mother as a sort of stock comedy character that she's mastered, with a dry, dim-sounding delivery that seems to end every sentence with "well, that's the way we've got to do it, innit?", and is seldom steered wrong doing so. Glen-Paul Waru quickly graduates to partner level as Amos, the employee of a security contractor tasked with checking on Kylie's bracelet, displaying a great chemistry with O'Reilly and making their scenes together sparkle.

Johnstone bounces between comedy and horror action easily; the one often serves as a sting for a scene with the other and keeps the movie going forward. His team gives us a setting that has personality as well as creepy atmosphere, and without necessarily giving the audience a tour he makes fine use of the house's space, especially during the quick but smooth big finale. Though the movie's not a gore-fest, he makes good use of the creepy things we do see, and delivers one heck of a coup de grace.

"Housebound" isn't the average haunted-house flick, but it doesn't subvert things so far as to lose the genre's pleasures, either. This sort of movie seldom has this kind of energy, and it's a fantastic surprise that they don't work against each other at all.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.