Review: ‘Housebound’ is an above-average execution of the haunted house genre

AUSTIN – Sometimes at the festival you walk into a room knowing nothing, sit down, and get your skull punched in by a movie that is calibrated perfectly, that knows exactly what it wants to do, and that seems almost unnaturally confident considering it was made by a first-time feature director.

“Housebound” is one of those movies.

There is something about the New Zealand sense of humor that I find enormously charming. It's very dry, very matter of fact, and “Housebound” is that rare film that manages to be funny without defusing any of its scares. What starts out as one genre of film turns out to be something entirely different, and instead of that feeling like one big cheat, it's actually handled in such a way that you can't help but admire the writing and the careful way in which things are revealed.

Gerard Johnstone, who wrote and directed “Housebound,” starts with a very simple idea. Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) is a sullen girl in her 20s who tries to rob an ATM with her dumbass boyfriend, only to get arrested. She is sentenced to house arrest in the home where she grew up, forcing her to spend time with her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and Miriam's boyfriend Graeme (Ross Harper). The problem is that Miriam believes the house is haunted, and after her first few nights home, Kylie starts to suspect that her mother is correct.

Revealing much more about the plot would be criminal. Suffice it to say that Johnstone has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, and he's very good at structure. The film parcels out the plot in scene after scene, no fat at all, but there's nothing mechanical about it. O'Reilly has to play a tough character here, because she starts out completely closed off and hostile. She only gradually thaws, and as she does, it's because she is shocked out of her apathy. Te Wiata manages to make Miriam both incredibly annoying and charming in her own way, and we can easily understand why she and her daughter are unable to deal with one another. I love that “Housebound” is definitely about the sins of the past, but not in any of the obvious ways I would have guessed.

The big lesson I took away from “Housebound” is that there is no excuse for doing the expected in any film. At this point, genre should simply be a springboard for creativity, not a trap or a straightjacket, but think of how many films you've seen where it feels like, no matter how much technical skill is involved or how strong the cast is, you're watching something that's just going through the motions. It's like people give up and just accept that there's a ceiling for how good something can be. “Housebound” features its fair share of genre conventions, but it's always throwing some tweak or quirk at you, either in the characters or in a choice the story makes or in the tone of how a scene is played. When you see someone engage this fully, it speaks well for them overall as a filmmaker. It's easy to phone in a genre movie. If you pick the right genre, you'll probably be able to sell it to the audience as long as its in focus and feature-length. But when you see someone go above and beyond, someone who writes every character to a degree that makes them feel like actual people and not just exposition-delivering extras, it is not just a pleasure… it's a relief.

“Housebound” is a fairly contained film, all taking place in just a few locations, but it doesn't feel like a small film at all. It is ambitious, technically accomplished, and feels like it would be at home in a national release by a smart distributor. Here's hoping someone else at SXSW saw the movie and understands just what a gem it is.

“Housebound” currently does not have domestic distribution lined up. Fix that.