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D: Gerard Johnstone / 107m

Cast: Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Cameron Rhodes, Ross Harper, Ryan Lampp, Mick Innes

After an attempted robbery of an ATM goes wrong, Kylie Bucknell (O’Reilly) is sentenced to eight months house arrest and forced to move back in with her mother, Miriam (Te Wiata) and father Graeme (Harper). Not getting on with them in the first place, Kylie’s disdain is increased by Miriam’s insistence that the house is haunted. Dismissive of her mother’s claims, Kylie keeps to herself and refuses to help out, but soon she too begins to experience strange happenings.

One such happening leads to her ankle tag being activated and the involvement of security operative Amos (Waru). When he’s not being a security operative, Amos is a paranormal investigator. He begins an investigation but it’s an encounter with a stuffed toy bear that convinces Kylie something sinister might be taking place. While she comes to terms with the possibility that her mother has been right all along, she has to put up with visits from court appointed counsellor Dennis McRandle (Rhodes). But it’s the discovery of a box of personal effects belonging to a teenage girl that deepens the mystery of what’s happening in the house.

Kylie learns that the house was originally a halfway house, and that a young girl was murdered there sixteen years before. Her killer was never caught, and Kylie begins to suspect that her ghost is causing all the strange disturbances. During a visit, Dennis is attacked and injured, but the police believe Kylie is responsible and dismiss her claims of a malevolent spirit. She tries to run away but is stopped by Amos, who persuades her to return and get to the bottom of things.

Another strange occurrence leads to the discovery of a clue to the young girl’s murder: a denture left behind by the murderer. The evidence points toward their neighbour, Mr Kraglund (Innes). Kylie breaks into Kraglund’s home in an attempt to steal his current denture for comparison but her plan backfires. But when Amos returns by himself, Kraglund tells him a story that changes everything.

Housebound - scene

A horror-comedy-mystery-thriller from New Zealand, Housebound is a wonderfully barmy breath of fresh air that mixes its various components with skill and confidence. Making his feature debut, writer/director Johnstone has fashioned a movie that pleases on so many different levels that it works as an object lesson in how to balance several genres all at once.

Beginning with a botched attempt at stealing an ATM where Kylie’s accomplice is knocked out by his own sledgehammer, the humour in Housebound is laugh-out-loud funny and as sharp as a scalpel. Throughout the movie, Johnstone throws in hilarious one-liners – “He’s a cabbage in a polo fleece” – priceless visual gags – Amos taking the knife from the killer – and absurd props such as a three-quarter size Jesus. The humour complements perfectly the mystery elements and the increasing physical horror of the movie’s final third, providing an amusing tone that never tires and offers often clever distractions and highlights.

Johnstone’s script segues from sitcom to supernatural chiller with aplomb, and helps draw in the viewer, painting a picture of domestic disharmony with broad, effective strokes that introduce the characters and sets up the ensuing disturbances with both charm and a refreshing conviction. Kylie’s relationship with her mother is deftly handled, while the awkwardness of her relationship with her father is shown best in a basement scene where he tries to have a proper conversation with her.

The central mystery – who killed the young girl? – is another example of how cleverly Johnstone’s script is constructed, its introduction around the forty-minute mark providing a reason for the supernatural happenings and paving the way for the movie’s transition from ghost story to whodunnit. (The structure of the movie is such that it moves from one genre to another with polished ease, and does justice to each one, making the whole experience so enjoyable it’s difficult to separate one particular genre from the rest as being the best served.)

Once the mystery is solved and a highly relevant character is introduced, Housebound switches tone and genre once more to become a violent thriller, with peril introduced at every turn (but still shot through with enough comedy to off-set the often vicious nature of the violence). Johnstone handles this transition with invention and panache, and makes a virtue of what amounts to a home invasion approach to the material, using the house and its internal environs to good effect.

Johnstone is well served by his cast, with O’Reilly making a tremendous impression as the sulky, standoffish Kylie, her surly looks and waspish remarks wonderfully rendered; it’s a captivating performance, mordantly funny and surprisingly emotive. She’s matched by Te Wiata as Miriam, her blasé reactions and dotty demeanour dovetailing neatly with Kylie’s antipathy, creating a mother-daughter relationship that is entirely credible. Waru is similarly effective as the trusting Amos, his faith in the supernatural played so amusingly he provides most of the comic relief (he also gets the best line in the movie: in response to Kylie’s assertion that she’ll “smash” any hostile spirits “in the face”, he mutters plaintively, “You can’t punch ectoplasm”.)

Rating: 8/10 – funny, thrilling, violent and hugely enjoyable, Housebound is the kind of movie that comes along every once in a while, but rarely reaches a wider audience than genre fans and festival audiences; one of the best feature debuts of recent years and one that marks out Johnstone as a talent to keep an eye out for.