Hailed as one one the critical darlings from this past year’s SXSW, New Zealand comic horror hybrid Housebound is now available stateside through a variety of video on demand platforms. The film is noteworthy for taking some of the staples of the haunted house film and giving them a twist by the ear. While it’s certainly a change of pace from the standard offering, I found myself holding the minority opinion of the film. I liked it just fine, but never found myself able to warm up to it.
Perhaps it has something to do with the lead character. Morgana O’Rielly gives a game performance as Kylie, a hoodlum confined to house arrest at her mother’s place after an ATM robbery goes awry. Kylie wears a permanent scowl on her face as if the old adage that you tell youngsters“If you keeping making that face it will freeze one day” proved itself to be true. As O’Rielly portrays her, Kylie is alternately one of the more unlikeable but fascinating leading characters in a genre film in a long while. To offset Kylie’s surly nature, Rima Tw Wiata gives a fantastic comical turn as the warm hearted, good cheered but somewhat clueless and supernatural mother.
One of two things that work in Housbound is the wacky cast of characters that exist on the fringes of the main story. The film plays up the cliched nature of the archetypal stepfather that has beef with his daughter, the bumbling, disinterested cops, the would-be paranormal investigator and the creepy neighbor with a shady past. Each of these roles are alternately exaggerated for comic effect while also being ground with a relatable humanity that fleshes them out.
Housebound plays with the normal genre tropes. It begins as a standard haunted house tale, albeit one that is a bit more clever than the norm. From a terrific aural design, moments of drawn out tension and shadowy figures that live just outside the periphery of vision, it looks like Housebound will be a supernatural laden affair. However as Kylie uncovers secrets about the house and its past residents, the films makes one of its many shifts in tone and expectations. It’s nicely delivered and keeps the audience on their toes. To state explicitly the directions the film veers would rob the viewer of the surprises that work well.
What’s unfortunate, at least in my experience with the film, is it never goes quite far enough with the humor and the horror. It’s never too scary and a bit too dry to be laugh out loud funny. I found Housebound too middle of the road to truly invest in it.
Perhaps it was the medium. Watching the film as a digital screener, I could not help but feel I was being robbed of soaking the movie in with an eager crowd and an immersive viewing experience. Perhaps the hype and anticipation that proceeded watching the movie were at such levels that I couldn’t help but be let down. It’s certainly a finely made film, and is more ambitious than most indie fare. While it might not be top notch, it’s worth a view for the first act alone.