'Housebound': Melbourne Review

Courtesy of Melbourne Film Festival
Morgana O'Reilly, Rima Te Wiata and Ross Harper in "Housebound"
A welcome return to quirky Kiwi horror comedy with a juicy payoff.

Moving back in with her mother proves a brooding social misfit's nightmare in debuting New Zealand director Gerard Johnstone's droll haunted-house tale.

A xylophone, a cheese grater, a corkscrew and a laundry basket are among unconventional weapons employed in the vigorous climactic mayhem of Housebound, an oddball haunted-house thriller that balances tongue-in-cheek playfulness with more serious dramatic urgency. Gerard Johnstone, a first-time writer-director from New Zealand, demonstrates a sly command of deadpan humor along with an assured grasp of seasoned horror tropes. And while the film is a slow-starter, it becomes increasingly atmospheric as it goes on, stirring in unlikely new twists and then grounding them in bizarre but persuasive plot logic.

XLrator Media picked up U.S. distribution rights earlier this year out of South by Southwest and announced plans for a simultaneous theatrical and VOD release in the fall. While the film may not rate highly on the scare-meter, genre fans should appreciate its distinctive Kiwi flavor and its mischievous take on well-trodden territory, not to mention the accelerating pull of its central mystery.

Morgana O'Reilly plays the inevitable young woman in peril, Kylie, with a bad attitude, a permanent sneer and an innate resourcefulness that we first witness as she's robbing an ATM with a sledgehammer. Given that multiple previous rehab stints have failed to curb her substance abuse and anger management issues, Kylie is sentenced to the "stability" of eight months of house arrest with her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and stepfather Graeme (Ross Harper) in her creepy childhood home.

Miriam's inane chatter and the patronizing guidance of Kylie's court-ordered psychiatrist Dennis (Cameron Rhodes) are punishment enough. But she soon finds she has bigger headaches to manage. Despite dismissing her superstitious mother's mutterings about a ghost, she stumbles upon evidence that the house had previous occupants, some of whom may not have entirely left the premises. There's also an unsavory neighbor (Mick Innes) with his share of secrets and a feral electronics wizard (Ryan Lampp) lurking in the shadows.

The authorities attribute Kylie's anxieties to drinking and addiction, and she occasionally has trouble separating reality from imagination herself. But luckily for her, Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), a guard from the local security firm monitoring her detention, turns out to be a dabbler in paranormal investigation.

O'Reilly (who looks uncannily like a younger Idina Menzel) makes an agreeably scrappy bad-girl heroine. The classic surly misfit subjected to inept social-services interventions is a familiar type, but Johnstone's script adds enough fresh kinks to keep Kylie interesting. Te Wiata gets low-key comedic mileage out of daffy mum, whose dithering uselessness doesn't exclude a sweet maternal side, while Innes makes Amos just sharp enough to be of help, without encroaching on Kylie's centrality as the stakes get higher. Rhodes brings a tasty hint of archness to the stock figure of the shrink who may be more unhinged than his patient.

The writer-director shows skill at cranking up the suspense by degrees, fueling a judiciously understated strain of ludicrousness en route to some amusing final-act carnage. Cinematographer Simon Riera makes a sinister environment of the murky interiors, while composer Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper's old-school symphonic score drives along the action.

Cast: Morgana O'Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Ross Harper, Cameron Rhodes, Ryan Lampp, Mick Innes, Bruce Hopkins, Millen Baird, Wallace Chapman, David Van Horn, Nikki Si'ulpa, Ian Mune, Kitty Riddell

Production company: Semi-Professional Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Gerard Johnstone
Producers: Luke Sharpe, Gerard Johnstone
Executive producers: Daniel Story, Chris Lambert, Michael Kumerich, Ant Timpson
Director of photography: Simon Riera
Production designers: Jane Bucknell, Anya Whitlock
Costume designer: Lissy Mayer
Music: Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper
Editor: Gerard Johnstone
Sales: Films Distribution, Paris
No rating; 107 minutes.