Housebound (Leeds International Film Festival) Review
One of the unique joys of Housebound is that the plotline twists and turns in ways that are unexpected and delightful. This isn’t some M. Night Shyamalan style construction where the entire film hinges on a twist, but the shifting narrative and plot mechanics are done with such craft and skill that it’s very worthwhile experiencing yourself. As such I’m going to try and skirt around discussion of the plot as best I can.
Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) is in something of a bind. Following a rather disastrous ATM robbery she has been placed under house arrest at her childhood home. Now she’s having to contend with her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and the growing suspicion that the home she grew up in may hold some dark secrets.
The debate I have about Housebound is whether to classify it as a horror comedy, or a horror movie that has really good jokes. My feelings are that the goofiness and consistency of the humour place it more as a horror comedy, but it is a surprisingly effective horror movie when it wants to be. It reminds me a lot of films like Poltergeist which were both effectively spooky but also laced with really, really, great jokes. It’s broader than Poltergeist but in terms of not diminishing the horror in favour of jokes, and actually building humour from the horror elements, it is a nice and simple comparison. The fact that the film feels like such a throwback largely feels accidental, it certainly doesn’t have the desperate posturing of something like Super 8 that had the look and feel down, but none of the heart or tone. This mastery of tone is impressive not least because of the fact it is writer/director Gerard Johnstone’s directorial debut.
Johnstone’s command of tone is one of the major reasons the film works. It’s a handsomely made and very well casted movie, but the film’s ability to switch from one tone to another at the drop of a hat is exceptionally impressive. For example an early scene in the film, in which Kylie follows the sound of her mobile phone to the basement, veers from a piece of great visual comedy, to a fantastic reaction, then it builds an effectively spooky atmosphere before launching an amazingly effective jump scare. It does all of this in the space of about a minute, and all four different tones feed directly into each other. The film does this consistently throughout its entire runtime, underlying the horror with humour but managing to never undercut the tone. What is also great is that almost all of the humour is derived from the characters and the shifting dynamics between them.
Due to the ankle monitor that restricts Kylie’s movements to her own home the films focus is understandably localised. Most of the narrative is split between three characters (Kylie, her mother and Amos the security officer tasked with monitoring Kylie’s ankle monitor) with a further half dozen characters lurking on the periphery of the story. The film’s focus on these characters is vital to its success and its three act structure can almost be broken down into Kylie’s softening relationship with the people in her life. The first act has a lot to establish but largely focuses on Kylie and Miriam as they adjust to the new paradigm. This is really important in setting up the groundwork for the rest of the film, as Kylie’s low-energy conflict with her mother (Kylie’s a slob, Miriam isn’t, Kylie’s cynical, Miriam’s a believer, Kylie’s introverted, Miriam’s extroverted) is key in establishing the home as a place Kylie is not comfortable in. As Miriam Rima Te Wiata delivers a performance that is simultaneously sympathetic and annoying, making you understand how difficult the process is for her as well but also really maximising the things that drive Kylie up the wall. The first act also works as an introduction to the house itself, establishing the very specific geography and quirks of the place and building a general sense of uneasiness.
The second act largely focuses on Kylie’s belligerent partnership with Amos as they find themselves working together to solve the mystery of the house. Glen-Paul Waru as Amos is the least experienced actor of the central trio, but you wouldn’t know as his bouncy chemistry with Kylie (more akin to a buddy cop dynamic than anything else) is wonderful. In a lot of ways Amos is the heart of the film, and Waru imbues the character with a dorky, goofy, charm whilst also still nailing the moments when he has to be an authority figure.
Kylie meanwhile is a joy of a character largely due to O’Reilly’s fantastically grumpy performance. What’s great is that Kylie only vaguely softens throughout the course of the movie, not discovering a heart but learning that she can rely on others. It’s a very subtle character arc and O’Reilly is fantastic at showing the very low key sea change. In general Kylie is fantastic, with a permascowl and a general hostility to everything, she’s a great kind of hero and perfect for the tone of the film. Her belligerence at times is comical when it needs to be, but her steeliness never minimises the horror elements of the film. She’s capable, but she’s not a generic and infallible badass. This makes sequences like the extended brawl, that caps off the film, work a lot better and have a real visceral weight to them. O’Reilly does a superb job as the character and displays a genuinely amazing penchant for comedy but vocal and physical (an early sequence involving creaky pipes during a trip to the bathroom is hysterical due to the sound work and O’Reilly’s increasingly quizzical reaction).
There are some issues with the film, largely due to how much it attempts to do in its third act. The first two acts of the film are perfectly paced, but once the major reveal of the film occurs the narrative has a lot of ground to cover and not much time to do it. As such the finale feels a little choppy at times and the last few scenes in particular are edited together in a way that is almost choppy. Characters move from peril to safety in a quick transition, the film’s main action set piece resolves and we’re immediately whisked to an epilogue. The last joke in the epilogue plays out and we’re immediately into the credits. For a film that is very patient at others times, the sudden increased pace is a little jarring. But this is a minor point in an otherwise fantastic movie.
Housebound is a charming, magnificently well put together horror movie. The kind of film that works amazingly well with a crowd, but I feel will reveal more depth on subsequent viewing. Its focus on character dynamics and relationships, whilst also being an amazingly constructed horror movie with brilliantly written jokes.
Housebound was screened as part of Leeds International Film Festival’s Night of the Dead Programme. More information about the festival can be found here.