Netflix is both a wonderful and maddening service. It’s wonderful because there are so many options, so many categories—many of them oddly specific—that it always seems like you’ll be able to find something interesting to watch. You know the truth though. Nine out of ten times, you just sit there, scrolling through titles in an endless stream until they’re barely making an impact on your brain anymore and you end up watching Clue for the fifty millionth time. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. Who doesn’t love Clue? But sometimes, you need something new. As Pop Chomp’s resident explorer of the underbelly of Netflix, I’m here to provide you with some alternative choices. This ain’t gonna be a week by week thing but when I find something special or weird enough to warrant your attention, I’ll be sure to let you know. I’ll be staking out Amazon too, though that could take me years. Amazon’s interface is despicably awful, as easy to navigate as a mountain road on a moonless night during a hail storm. So give me some time on that one. Anyway, the first flick I’ve found for ya is a little horror comedy from New Zealand called Housebound.
I first heard of the movie when it came out back in the fall. It got decent to solid reviews and was a hit at several horror festivals but didn’t seem like something I needed to check out immediately. The main thing that keep me away was the quote from Peter Jackson that was prominently displayed on the poster. He called it “bloody brilliant” or something like that. I figured if he liked it, that meant it had to be over three hours long and the start of a planned trilogy. Turns out though, he was right. Housebound is bloody brilliant; an odd ball mix of mounting dread, genuine scares, and screwball comedy. Had I seen it in 2014, it probably would have made my list of the best films of the year.
Horror comedies are tricky to pull off. Head too far in one direction and your audience is too scared or grossed out to laugh. Head too far in the other direction and you’ve got something too self-aware or goofy to be enjoyable. The best horror comedies (Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, Jackson’s Dead Alive, and Return of the Living Dead) walk a fine line between scares and laughs and are able to balance the two so that they flow naturally from the story. Housebound is such a film.
The premise is somewhat ingenious. Newcomer Morgana O’Reilly stars as Kylie, a troubled girl who we first meet as she and her boyfriend do a terrible job of robbing an ATM. They get caught almost instantly and Kylie is sentenced to 8 months under house arrest in the home of her mother and step-father, a place she hasn’t visited in years. Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the friendly, bumbling security officer in charge of monitoring her ankle bracelet tells her that if she tries to run away, he’ll be on the scene in a second. Her mother (a hilarious Rema Ti Wiata) is a non-stop talker and optimistic about everything. She sees the ankle bracelet and says, “Aren’t you lucky, Kylie, having all that high-technology on your foot?” Obviously, Kylie is sullen and withdrawn. She refuses to listen to any of her mother’s commands or requests and even holds the living room hostage at one point. Her attitude gets worse when she discovers that her mom frequently calls paranormal hotlines to complain about the ghost in the house. Kylie doesn’t believe in the supernatural but after a creepy encounter with something malevolent in the basement, she begins to suspect there may be a ghost living with them after all.
The fact that Kylie is under house arrest effectively neutralizes the ‘why don’t you just leave’ criticism that all other haunted house movies are subject to. She can run away but the cops will be dragging her back before she gets halfway down the road. Her only option is to place her trust in Amos, who turns out to be an amateur ghost-hunter. As soon as she tells him about the mysterious occurrences, he pulls out a tape recorder and starts asking questions about who the spirit is to the empty air. She mocks him for this but they soon discover that the house used to be an insane asylum (of course) and a young girl was murdered in Kylie’s room many years ago (of course). The killer was never found but the creepy old guy who lives next door and spends his free time skinning animals seems like a prime suspect.
It’s a typical horror movie plot and fairly easy to figure out. What makes it work are the performances and the way first time writer/director Gerald Johnstone celebrates and skewers horror conventions. Take Kylie’s psychiatrist. Once she tells him about all the bizarre events going on in the house, he suggest that she may be suffering from a split personality disorder brought on by trauma. Kylie says what we all think about ‘it’s all in their head’ plot twists when she asks him, “how is that any less retarded than the house being haunted?”
Kylie is a fun protagonist and in a lesser actor’s hands she would be completely unlikeable but O’Reilly does a nice job of making her obnoxious yet relatable. It’s also a strength of the screenplay that she doesn’t suddenly become a nice person when the plot requires her too. She softens little by little and only as the situation grows more dangerous. It’s refreshing to see a hero start the story as an angry, bitter person and only emerge slightly less angry and bitter at the end. Small, organic characters changes work better than sweeping huge ones that come out of nowhere.
I mentioned that the plot is fairly easy to figure out and it is, but there is one plot twist that took me completely by surprise. It’s introduced late in the game via some clumsy exposition but that can be forgiven because the twist effectively spins the story on its head and sends it in an exciting, creepy, and hilarious new direction. It also gives the film’s title an amusing double meaning.
In a horror comedy, pacing is key and Johnstone proves himself a master of it. This is one hell of a feature film debut. I would have expected a first time filmmaker to be more impatient, to pile on the blood and guts in the first ten minutes or to throw in as many jokes as possible under the mistaken impression it’ll keep the audience invested. He understands that it is strong characters, mood, and tension that keep an audience invested. The laughs and scares come slow at first but build at a steady pace that leads us right into the hysterical and suspenseful climax.
The climax is a complete delight, awash in cartoonish gore and deranged screwball comedy. The characters find themselves using any weapon available to them—a laundry basket proves way more useful than I would have ever suspected—as they run through every room in the gothic house and even down some hidden corridors. It practically turns into a full on farce, with a few moments of mistaken identity being particularly clever and funny. But it’s all still thrilling and creepy. That’s a hard act to pull off. Johnstone manages it because everything that occurs feels natural. Look, if you were trapped in a kitchen and had no weapons at your disposal other than a cheese grater, wouldn’t you use it? If you needed to distract the cops, what better way is there than a chatty, overly-friendly mother? Each insane moment of comedy occurs because the situation requires it to and not because some writer thought it would be funny.
So many horror movies these days—cough cough The Lazarus Effect and Annabelle—are completely joyless. They only exist to make a quick buck and provide cheap jump scares. Few of them can even provide that. They have no love for the genre, no sense of fun, and no invention. Housebound has all three in spades. So, next time you’re on Netflix and you can’t seem to figure out what to watch, take a look at it. And make sure to do so before Hollywood remakes it and sucks all the life out of it.
P.S. Did I mention there’s a demonic Teddy Ruxpin in this movie? I didn’t? So sorry. There’s a demonic Teddy Ruxpin in this movie.