Housebound (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“I’m not going to spend the next eight months being a prisoner in my own home!”

So declares middle-aged chatterbox Miriam Bucknell (Rima Te Wiata) to her “cabbage in a polar fleece” boyfriend Graeme (Ross Harper). It is dawning on Miriam, indignantly confined to her own bedroom to watch her favourite soap on a staticky old television, that when her delinquent daughter Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is held captive on house arrest for robbery and destruction of property, this captivity extends to Miriam too. Yet as things go bump in the night, objects move about, and strange encounters occur in the basement, Kylie and her mother become convinced that there is someone – or something – else being forced to share their space in the house.

Helped by neighbourhood probation officer/amateur paranormal investigator Amos (Glen Paul Waru), Kylie uncovers an unsolved crime from decades back in which a teenaged girl, as angry and recalcitrant as Kylie herself, was viciously murdered in what is now Kylie’s bedroom. So Kylie sets about trying to exorcise the girl’s restless spirit and find her killer, even as an ankle bracelet prevents her from leaving the premises.

Tropes rarely get more tired and hoary than in the dark, old house of the ghost genre, but Housebound, the feature debut of TV director Gerard Johnstone, is building up this architectural structure only to turn it inside out with deconstructive glee. For, like a barebones The Cabin in the Woods relocated to smalltown New Zealand, Housebound delivers a deftly, wittily handled story of a kind that has been seen many times before, before peering in the psychological closet, pulling the rug from under the viewer, tearing away the very bricks and mortar that constitute this genre’s solid but familiar furnishings, and exposing something rather strange, unexpected and original hidden beneath. All this is helped along by a menagerie of colourful (yet convincing) characters who refuse to play by the expected rules – or play victim – and who between them generate organic, unforced comedy emerging more from their extreme personalities (and personality clashes) than from any broad, dumbed-down conceit.

“I’m gonna punch it in the face!”, asserts Kylie after Amos points out that just cracking jokes is probably ineffective against a hostile spirit. “You can’t punch ectoplasm,” is Amos’ sensible response – and yet Housebound unfolds in a borderland (on the Twin Coasts Highway!) between the ghostly and the physical, the eerily uncanny and the hilariously banal, where it is just about possible to grapple, or even share a laugh, with an uninvited interloper. Spending nearly two hours in the house with this extended and dysfunctional family is more joy than sentence.

Anton Bitel