Thursday, October 16, 2014

House Spirits: "Housebound" playfully balances deadpan humor with horror

Housebound (2014)
109 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

Born out of New Zealand, "Housebound" is a cleverly quirky, oddly endearing horror-comedy-mystery lark that might seem tame at the onset, but then pops out the wickedly bloody goods alongside its good, Kiwi-flavored humor. Debuting writer-director Gerard Johnstone shows a playfully assured command of both genres, making sure the droll, deadpan humor doesn't undermine the supernatural spookiness. With its basic story of a house-arrested young woman encountering a possible haunting, Johnstone throws in a little of "Home Alone" and "The People Under the Stairs" for good measure to marvelously amusing effect. With "Housebound" given the seal of approval by Peter Jackson, it seems appropriate that the Kiwi-native filmmaker cut his teeth on 1992's gleefully gory and over-the-top "Dead Alive."

Arrested for attempting to rob an ATM with her boyfriend, rebellious, drug-abusing twentysomething Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) is sentenced to house arrest with an ankle monitor. For stability, though it could fare worse than prison, she moves back to the old house of upbeat mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and her man-of-few-words boyfriend Graeme (Ross Harper). Smoking, eating all of her mom's meatloaf that was prepared for dinner, and not moving from in front of the TV, bored Kylie quickly gets on her mother's nerves. When she overhears her mother calling in on a late-night radio show to say she believes her house could be haunted, Kylie scoffs at the idea. Then, one night, things begin to go bump in the night and Kylie starts digging up the history on her childhood home and the creepy man next door.

As aggressively rude and unpleasant as Kylie is upon first meeting her, Morgana O'Reilly (who often resembles M├Ądchen Amick, circa 1990) has a spiky, edgy presence that takes a while to warm up to, but the actress is such a master at expressing everything with her eyes and scowling face. She's perpetually pissed-off and doesn't give her mother the time of day, but once the supernatural goings-on begin and she puts her delinquent resources to use, Kylie grows on the viewer as a scrappy heroine. By comparison, Rima Te Wiata is a sweet, daffy delight as the chatty Miriam, while Glen-Paul Waru is an amible scene-stealer as helpful, if lumbering, security guard Amos who knows a thing or two about paranormal activity. In fact, one wouldn't mind seeing Kylie and Amos team up again to solve mysteries in a spin-off.

There is a mystery afoot, with a few red herrings keeping us off-balance, and it might survive close scrutiny more than most. Though the humor certainly eases the horror, there is some eerie business in the basement and the nervously amusing use of a potentially possessed talking stuffed bear. In the inventively staged, wildly entertaining climactic carnage between mother and daughter versus the ghostly-or-otherwise culprit, the film welcomes the first-ever uses of a cheese grater and a laundry basket the genre has yet seen. "Housebound" is still devoted to tingling one's spine, but instead of coming off as a serious creeper, it's just a deftly executed fun time.

Grade: B +

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