I like the kinds of films that get comments like “weird,” “odd” and “quirky.” The last is especially appealing, since it implies the first two plus a touch of humor.
Housebound, a 2014 New Zealand film now streaming on Netflix, fits the third adjective perfectly. With a cast of unlikely characters, it’s a horror film in the vein of Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996), though not quite so over-the-top.
For the uninitiated, Jackson is the New Zealander who made The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. The Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox, was the movie he made just before the first Tolkien film and just after the magnificent Heavenly Creatures, Kate Winslet’s first movie.
Gerard Johnstone, writer/director of Housebound, would seem to be following in the themes and genes of the older, more famous fellow Kiwi who became a big fan after seeing Housebound three years ago. The Hollywood big shots have felt the vibes, too; Johnstone has been chosen to script the upcoming Justice League Dark feature for Warner Bros., with the rumored possibility that he might also direct. It’s tentatively planned for theatrical release.
Housebound opens as a young couple tries to rob an ATM. Obviously not the sharpest tack in the pincushion, the hapless man tries clobbering the unit several times with a sledgehammer before knocking himself unconscious with an unexpected recoil. His companion, Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly), a young woman with a bad attitude and a meth and alcohol problem, has more success with explosives, after which she drags the loot and her unconscious mate to the getaway car.
At this point, sirens blare in the distance, and she accidentally drives the car onto a parking lot curb, where it promptly stalls.
Kylie is remanded by the court to the care of her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata), confined to the parental home for six months, an electronic device attached to her ankle ensuring she won’t leave the premises. Kylie treats her poor placid mother with contempt; Miriam’s even more docile live-in boyfriend Graeme (Ross Harper) she pointedly ignores.
Until things start going bump in the night. The family home, it turns out, has a disturbing background, which Kylie didn’t know while she was growing up. Formerly a bed & breakfast, it was later converted to a halfway house for delinquent girls, one of whom was brutally murdered there. The identity of the killer is still unknown, and Kylie is convinced the girl’s tortured ghost haunts the place, a perception roundly enforced by Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the technician responsible for maintaining Kylie’s electronic monitor.
With trepidation, Amos (an amateur Ghostbuster) and Kylie try to uncover the murderer’s identity and thus ease the pain of the restless spirit. Not all, however, are quite so enthusiastic about Kylie’s commitment, particularly the authorities and her guidance counselor Dennis (played by Cameron Rhodes, a New Zealander who could easily double for Hugh Bonneville, aka Lord Crawley of Downton Abbey).
Not to be mistaken for straight parody or slapstick, Housebound has more than its share of chills, frights and gore. In this regard, it recalls yet another early Jackson film, Dead-Alive (’92). I keep mentioning Peter Jackson because his influence on Gerard Johnstone is obvious: a compliment to both men.
The younger Johnstone might be walking in Jackson’s footsteps, but there’s nothing wrong in modeling your efforts on the best. There are few filmmakers today as inventive, imaginative and ambitious as Jackson, yet Johnstone pulls it off with an inimitable touch all his own.
In addition to the wild plot and clever script, Housebound touts a superb cast of seeming misfits; few will be familiar to American audiences. Each brings a fresh face and accomplished effort to the manic goings-on.
Housebound is one of those films you’ll tell your quirky movie pals about as it tries to find the audience it deserves among home viewers. Give it a shot.