Monday, March 30, 2015

Housebound (2014) Movie Thoughts

After a horribly botched ATM robbery attempt, troubled young lady, Kylie Bucknell(Morgana O'Reilly) is ordered by law to move back into her childhood home in the sticks, and stay there to serve home detention. Bothered enough by the largely desolate landscape, and hardly the type to adhere to rules, her mum(Rima Te Wiata) and stepdad(Ross Harper) remain just a few notches this side of odd. Tensions in this rickety old home are bad enough, but when the lights go out, it becomes rather clear that not only have things grown infinitely spookier there since childhood, there also seems to be something watching over the house. And it is a presence that has continued to haunt the Bucknell house for longer than anyone is willing to admit, or believe. Inverting horror tropes, and embracing the well-mannered funny has long been a staple in Kiwi film. And in Gerard Johnstone's often wildly fun debut, it's the kind of wily mix that we haven't seen in well over two decades.

Shaken by a harrowing encounter in the basement, and spurred on by some strange words shared publicly by her well-meaning mum, Kylie shifts gears into detective mode. Enlisting the unlikely help in her stocky Maori security enforcement officer, revelations of the history of the house, and it's darkest secrets begin mounting in what winds up far more sinister, and bizarre than mere apparitions. Making matters all the more complicated is that Kylie's life of crime and overall poor attitude toward grownups make her something of an unreliable detective. As visiting social workers, teachers, police, and other authority figures continue to visit, her stories are barely taken seriously- even when the horror seems to bite some in the face.

This is where Johnstone's prowess as a character builder gels so well, casting the leads as a dysfunctional group at odds with the outside world as the unbelievable seems so uncomfortably close. Kylie's mom and her immensely shy husband are portrayed as well-meaning, but largely ineffectual parents just holding on to a tenuous grasp of their only child. While Kylie begins to slowly slough off her feral exterior, unveiling a girl who just fell under a spell of bad luck (not to mention harboring memories long buried). Rounding this all off, is the most welcome Glen-Paul Waru as a security guy just itching to be a ghost whisperer. Every time he's on screen, it's a feat of disarming fun. It has been years since dread has been rendered so vocal and participatory between viewer and screen. It becomes hard not to wince and laugh.

And while the final act begins to feel constrained by a need to tidy things up, leading to something of a clumsy finale, Johnstone keeps the tension mounting even when it begins to stretch credulity. For a film that could easily have become another exercise in post-modern echo chambering, it becomes densely involved in ways that harken more to a time when development and character took center stage in the horror film. It's surprisingly warm and willing to grant the viewer ample understanding of everyone's situation, not to mention it's sensitivity to action geography. Housebound, actually cares about what is happening, and how it happens. In what remains something of a complete surprise, Johnstone's first film out of the gate bears distinction of having the kind of clarity and energy of a celebrated veteran.

And when your first film feels like a lesser effort of a celebrated master, you're doing something right.

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