Collins’ Crypt: HOUSEBOUND Makes Pulling Off A Horror Comedy Look Easy
The Boxofficemojo chart of horror comedies is a pretty dire list - for every smash like Ghostbusters or Zombieland, there's a dozen that tanked, like Slither or Tremors. Plus, four of the top ten entries are Scary Movie and its first three sequels, which hardly count as they are comedies that (mostly) spoof horror films - there is zero attempt to actually scare you or even tell much of a coherent story. A true horror comedy should work primarily as a horror film, albeit one that happens to be very funny as well. But for whatever reason, audiences often stay away - out of 117 movies on the list, only 23 of them have made more than 20 million dollars (not factoring inflation, but did grossing under $20m EVER look good?). As a result, we don't see too many attempts at them in the Hollywood system - the genre thrives primarily in the independent and foreign markets, because VOD and whatever home video format is dominant at the time is usually where these movies find their audience anyway.
But if I had my way, I somehow would have secured the New Zealand film Housebound a 3,000 screen release and left it there until it had outgrossed the likes of those terrible Scary Movie films (or, at least, Marlon Wayans' A Haunted House). I've seen the film twice now, both times via online screener, and had such a great time alone on my sad little 17 inch monitor that I have to assume it'd be a major crowd pleaser on the big screen, something I'm likely never to experience as the film is already out on DVD (it supposedly got a brief theatrical run in the US, though other than the date I can't find anything about it). I never bothered with a top 10 list last year because I feel I missed too many movies, but I can't imagine Housebound would be any lower than my top 5 for a genre-specific list.
Hell, top 3 might even be more accurate - the movie is just so damn good. For starters, it manages to overcome a major hurdle for me: having a dickish criminal as the hero. I've seen a million horror movies that start off with criminals robbing a bank or whatever only to get trapped with (fill in monster/killer here), and I usually end up rooting for the bad guy because filmmakers often neglect to give us any further characterization to humanize these jerks. All we know is that they're stealing from people, which means I'm happy to see them go unless I have some affinity for the actor (i.e. George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn). So on my first viewing, I was deflated a bit in the first scene - when we meet Kylie, she's robbing an ATM, only to get caught when her getaway vehicle gets stuck on a cement divider (something I've actually seen occur in real life, so this tickled me). She is promptly sentenced to house arrest with her estranged mother and stepfather, which is where the horror part of the plot begins as it seems the place is haunted, and in less capable hands I might have tuned out here. But no! Kylie is mean to everyone, takes zero responsibility for her actions, etc - but yet she endeared herself to me, mainly by being pretty funny and occasionally showing brief glimpses of the normal, sweet girl under the exterior. However, BRIEF is the keyword here; right down to the end she's still being kind of a bitch to her poor mother and rolling her eyes as often as she blinks. It's just enough to make her likable without ever betraying the fact that she's kind of a jerk.
More importantly, the seemingly generic haunted house plot is anything but, and I'd be spoiling things to say how it manages to be much more interesting than that. I will say that it's nearly impossible to guess at how everything ends up based on anything in the first act of the film, and leave it at that. And yet, it never feels like it's suffering from multiple personality disorder, like some "and then it changes on you" movies tend to - everything tracks, and reveals are carefully but frequently handed out in such a way that you're getting enough info for the next plot point to work, but not so much that writer/director Gerard Johnstone (on his feature debut! Incredible) can't pull the rug out from under you again 20 minutes later. It's a tough balancing act, keeping things from being set in stone without actually cheating the audience, while also following the "rules" of different horror sub-genres - the screenplay is definitely one that should be taught, somewhere - which isn't something you can often say about horror films.
Johnstone also pulls off another rare feat: making me genuinely afraid for a male character in a genre film. I've never seen Glen-Paul Waru in anything (not surprising since it's only his second feature, and in the first he had a nameless bit part), and yet it only took a few minutes to love his character Amos, who is the security guy in charge of making sure Kylie doesn't leave the premises (he's the one that gets the call if her ankle bracelet is removed or if she leaves the house). Early on, when Kylie thinks she heard someone in the basement, he doesn't do the usual hardass thing and accuse her of messing with him - he pulls out a tape recorder and attempts to record some EVP! And he proves to be a helpful ally to her as things go from bad to worse, which means he's in harm's way quite often. Even on my second viewing I got tensed up when an antagonist had him dead to rights, and I honestly can't recall the last time I had that sort of feeling (Randy in Scream may have been the last, though I feel I've used that example before so perhaps he's the second since Randy).
And it's got some great splatter played for laughs, something another New Zealand filmmaker used to excel at before he became obsessed with computers and frame rates. There's a wonderful bit where Kylie accidentally stabs someone, and watching her get covered in blood as she tries to undo her mistake is just wonderful and sick. The humor in general plays directly from the situations, and Johnstone never stoops to just tossing in a gag or a one-liner for the sake of having a laugh - everything stems directly from the full-blown horror plot, which is how it SHOULD be in a horror-comedy but rarely is. You can take the jokes out of the movie and it'd still work, unlike say, Bordello of Blood, which has a completely gibberish and dull plot, which in turn decreases the movie's ability to be funny as the jokes are being used to "save" the film rather than simply being part of it. Even running gags get used for both scares and laughs, such as the fact that a faulty fuse in the house causes the electricity to go out often, usually at inopportune moments, with both heroes and villains alike being hindered by its bad timing. There's also a laugh out loud bit during the otherwise very tense climax, though I can't describe it without giving away key plot points (it involves a cut to someone wearing headphones).
In fact, it works so well that I had to wonder why it's seemingly so hard to get it right. Johnstone makes all this stuff look effortless, and his approach seems to be one that's driven by common sense more than anything: "Tell a good story," "Don't throw in gags just for the hell of it," etc. And yet, within an hour after shutting it off I was reading about Gnome Alone, a Leprechaun wannabe with Verne Troyer as the title character, which apparently relies on all the same dumb/obvious jokes and tonal schizophrenia that sinks 90% of funny/scary fare. It's a shame that more people will probably see that goddamn thing (at least here in the irony-loving US) than a legitimately great horror comedy blend like Housebound, but I take some comfort knowing that filmmakers like Johnstone are putting the effort in to doing things right. If you haven't seen it yet, please remedy that.