New Zealand has a reputation for horror comedies. Some - like Braindead, The Frighteners, and this year’s What We Do in the Shadows, are terrific movies. Others, which I won’t name, aren’t. It’s an interesting (and when we’re lucky, entertaining) sidebar to a nation’s cinema largely defined by misery and unease. Even amongst what is proving to be a standout year for New Zealand cinema, Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound is one of the good ones.
There’s a lot to be said for a low-budget premise that uses its budget as inspiration rather than limitation. Housebound follows wayward youth Kylie Bucknell as she’s sentenced to nine months home detention following a botched ATM robbery attempt. Kylie is bolshy and badass, and none too keen to spend the better part of a year with her irritating mum and the various weirdos surrounding the house. It’s a great single-location scenario to begin with, but there’s also more to the house than meets the eye, and things quickly start to get scary.
The horror side of Housebound works well for the jumble of tropes that it is. It’s got supernatural and insane-asylum chills, creepy toys and neighbours, a spattering of gore, and even takes a brief sideline in Bad Ronald-esque voyeurism. All these disparate elements come together satisfyingly, thanks to some clever plotting, fake-outs, and twists that recontextualise earlier parts of the movie. Though the backstory ends up feeling a little too familiar, there’s enough weird stuff around that it wins on entertainment points.
But horror comedies need to be funny as well, and in this respect Housebound is remarkably inconsistent. Maybe I’m just jaded, but the strain of horror-comedy derived from “improvised household weaponry” stopped being funny for me some years ago. Broader jokes come across as forced in this otherwise-humble little movie, including a final line that ought to cue a freeze-frame and saxophone-led sitcom credits music.
The broad stuff also just feels out of place, because Housebound is a movie laced through with wonderful, subtle observational character comedy. Morgana O’Reilly turns in a strong, stroppy lead performance as the unflappable girl who finally finds something that flaps her, but the bulk of the comedy rests on the capable shoulders of New Zealand theatre icon Rima Te Wiata, and Glen-Paul Waru, a New Zealand actor who is not a theatre icon but is still really good in the movie. Te Wiata plays an amalgam of all of New Zealand’s casually racist, clueless middle-aged people, and though I’m terrified that won’t play to non-Kiwi audiences, it’s fucking funny. Waru’s parole officer cum amateur ghost hunter is a more obviously comic character, but scores many of the film’s big laughs with his complete commitment to the film’s increasingly strange conceits.
I didn’t warm to Housebound to the same extent as many of my countrymen. It’s not the second coming of Braindead as many have claimed, but really, it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be itself, and for much of its brief, efficient running time, it is.