You Don’t Need To Leave Home To See Housebound… But It Would Be Worth It

Z66akcThe other day I argued that we need to pay more attention to small-scale films that are mostly relegated to digital distribution. One movie I namechecked in that call to action was the New Zealand horror film Housebound, which is available on iTunes but doesn’t seem to be playing in any theaters, at least in New York. Having shot my mouth off, I felt that I should put my money where my mouth is (a staggering sum of $5) and check the movie out, having been curious about it since it played at SXSW this past spring. What I discovered was a cleverly crafted and tricky horror film, one that constantly changes your perception of the story as it goes along and mixes in some desert-dry humor as a bonus.

The dramatic situation of Housebound is, at the outset, a simple high concept genre idea: a delinquent young woman named Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is put under house arrest with her estranged mother and stepfather, only to discover that the house that she cannot leave may be haunted. Thankfully for the audience, writer/director Gerard Johnstone does not stop with just this basic premise (although I’m sure he could craft something fun out of just that logline). Instead, Johnstone continues to build and reverse and redefine throughout the story. Every 10-15 minutes a new piece of information is dropped into Kylie’s lap that completely changes everything that we’ve already seen, and our expectations of what will happen next. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on where things are going, the film provides another turn; it keeps the audience and the characters guessing every step of the way.

The majority of these turns happen during the second act, which is a huge factor in how the film stays compelling. The second act- particularly the second half of the second act- is always the most difficult and complicated part of a script to crack, and it’s usually where you lose momentum. Even if all of the beats are conceptually solid, and fit the pace of the film, they usually feel less engaging because they end up feeling like filler until the climax; Whiplash, a film that I absolutely loved, had a stretch like this after its midpoint. Housebound, though, completely avoids this issue, and it actually becomes more compelling and involving as the story moves along. Each new twist shakes things up and keeps the audience excited; in doing so, it nimbly avoids the sort of necessary drudgery that usually marks the second act.

But despite all of these shifts in perspective and expectation, the film never loses sight of the thematic/character elements that are driving the story. When you look at the premise of the film, it’s not hard to guess what the story is going to be about: a daughter coming to terms with her family and confronting the home that she ran away from. And Housebound delivers that exact arc, and does so with an equal amount of emotion and snark. But the fact that Johnstone was able to build such a twisty-turny plot while still being able to stay relevant to the theme of the movie is what’s really impressive. The fact that each new turn still feels like an extension of the theme is what allows each change in direction to feel like a permanent one. The thematic arc of the story is a willing participant in the long con of the narrative, which not only makes the fake-outs more impactful but also keeps everything focused through to the end. Even describing it as a long-con is disingenuous, as every change in the status quo contributes to the overall story. Nothing is a red herring, each beat is just another piece of the puzzle. From the mother’s ghost stories to the creepy neighbor to the annoying psychiatrist to the history of the house to the ghost-hunting security technician, every element of the narrative plays a role, and the variety of elements is another thing that keeps the film fresh.

There’s also the very slight sense of humor that permeates the film. While I wouldn’t describe the film as a horror-comedy (yknow, that thing Ryan Murphy apparently just invented last week), it certainly has a ton of snark to it. These light moments will pop up when you least expect them, which not only adds to the unpredictable nature of the story but helps you connect to the characters. The humorous moments keep the characters grounded amongst all of the reversals of the plot, as do the terrific performances. Morgana O’Reilly’s work as Kylie is the sort of thing that should get her plenty of bigger opportunities (I’m already wondering which Marvel hero she could play), and the rest of the ensemble does great work in making each player stand out.

I’m bummed that my review of this great movie is going to be so short, but this is a movie that I really feel I shouldn’t talk too much about in advance. It’s the sort of film that is most effective seen blind, with no real expectation of where it’s going and what the ultimate climax is going to be. Suffice it to say that Housebound is a terrific piece of storytelling, one that certainly deserves a bigger audience than it’s getting. The least I can do is call as much attention to it as possible, and hope that at least some of you will give it a chance. I mean, come on, it’s $5! And you don’t have to leave your bed! What’ve you got to lose?

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