Meet the big genre surprise of SXSW 2014. Until my arrival in Austin, I knew very little – if anything – about Housebound, a film hailing from New Zealand under the direction of Gerard Johnstone and starring Morgana O'Reilly. What you, dear reader, need to know is this is one to look out for. Housebound is a pleasing blend of scares and laughs wrapped in a Tales from the Crypt-like package that doesn't sacrifice character for thrills. It may run a few minutes too long, but Johnstone clearly knows what it takes to make a horror-comedy work.
"Face maker" Morgana O'Reilly (my nickname for her – seriously, she makes the best physical expressions with her face) plays Kylie, a young, rebellious woman who, after a botched bank theft, is kicked back home with her mother and placed under house arrest for eight months. Naturally, it's not an easy transition for Kylie and she mostly begins her sentence scowling, smoking and getting on her mother's nerves.
Johnstone sets a nice comedic rhythm during this time, allowing us to invest in the mother-daughter relationship which ultimately becomes more important as the film goes on. Others also involved in Kylie's day-to-day life include her mother's boyfriend and Amos (Glen-Paul Waru, who threatens to steal every seen he's in), an officer tasked with keeping tabs on Kylie, and Dennis the psychologist. When suspicion arises that the house Kylie grew up in has a dark past, she begins to suspect it is being haunted.
This ensemble is what keeps the heartbeat of Housebound going. Their chemistry is endearing and the performances are pitch-perfect. There's a slight imbalance in the film's perspective, but it always comes back to being seen through Kylie's eyes. Johnstone maintains a good sense of mystery and, in addition to being able to deliver the laughs, he's got a firm grasp on what makes a scare gag effective. They evolve as the film progresses, culminating in a fiercely fun and unrelenting finale. And underneath it all, layered beneath the humor and bloodshed, Housebound is a nice meditation on rediscovering family regardless of how quirky or unexpected it can be.
The film is a real discovery and an impressive debut for first-time feature filmmaker Johnstone.