Stars: Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Cameron Rhodes, Millen Baird, Ross Harper and Wallis Chapman.
Writer/Director: Gerard Johnstone
Screens as the Opening Night film of the 2014 Sydney Underground Film Festival on Thursday, September 4.
That moment of indescribable horror when you realise that your only option in life is to move back in with your parents proves a grand premise for Gerard Johnstone’s debut outing, Housebound. Exhibiting a bold visual style and a natural flair for funny, character-driven dialogue, the New Zealander has delivered a giggly, gory romp that both honours and enhances his native film industry’s love of the macabre. In tandem with Taiki Waititi’s vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows, 2014 has proven to be a banner year for the New Zealand sector and its grasp of what constitutes marketable, fresh content (take note, Screen Australia).
Miserably failing as a petty criminal, angry young woman Kylie (a terrific Morgana O’Reilly) is ‘sentenced’ to eight months in an ankle bracelet under the care of her upright and old-fashioned mum, Miriam (comic great Rima Te Wiata). The dark and dusty family home, its countryside setting ensuring Kylie has nowhere to run, seems cursed by unexplainable phenomena stemming from its past as a refuge for wayward teens. When things start to go bump in the night, Kylie reluctantly teams with self-proclaimed ‘ghostbuster’ Amos (Glen-Paul Waru) to unravel decades of small-town secrets and lies.
Years as one of the creative forces on the hit Kiwi sitcom The Jaquie Brown Diaries has served Johnstone’s comedy timing well; he establishes key characters with a swift, confident series of broad brush strokes that are funny and insightful. Less assured is the film’s central second act, when an extended sequence between Amos and a creepy neighbour provides little pay-off and Rima Te Wiata’s comic presence as Miriam disappears for far too long.
All shortcomings are forgiven when the frantic third act kicks into gear, with every energetic blast of increasingly off-kilter exposition scaling giddy heights in gleeful terror and icky comedy. The nerve-shredding creepiness of the first act is largely jettisoned by the film’s denouement, which utilises some well-timed tech wizardry to transport the audiences into every nook and cranny of the grand mansion. The frantic final moments also serve to cover up some gaping holes in logic and realism (the interior of the home starts to take on Tardis-like qualities, for example), but Johnstone has earned so much audience goodwill that such concerns barely register.
Comparisons to countryman Peter Jackson’s early works Bad Taste and Braindead are inevitable, given the high-energy inventiveness and consummate technical skill displayed by the first-timers. But Johnstone’s film is a far more polished undertaking, which also benefits from not relying upon the kind of one-joke local flavour that proved the undoing of Jonathan King’s Black Sheep. More accurate comparisons include such off-shore efforts as Steve Miner’s 1986 cult item House (the artwork for Housebound’s one-sheet echoes that film’s poster font), Tony Williams 1982 gothic-horror Ozploitation favourite, Next of Kin, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family films.