Sarah Ward

Housebound mines the humour of domesticity to craft a frightfully fun and funny romp.

Combining the terrifying with the hilarious may seem an easy task; however crafting a horror-comedy can prove otherwise. Successful examples of the hybrid genre weave together competing components into a delicate amalgam, offering scares that elicit genuine jumps and amusement that evokes hearty guffaws without either element battling for supremacy. It is this feat that writer/director Gerard Johnstone achieves in his first feature outing, ostensibly a haunted house effort but actually drawing on a much broader range of fantastical and thrilling material. Housebound effectively mines the jolts of all that goes bump in the night as well as the humour of domesticity to craft a frightfully fun and funny romp.

After an attempted ATM smash-and-grab goes awry, the perennially rebellious Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O'Reilly, TV’s Neighbours) is sentenced to what she considers a rather harsh form of punishment. For eight months, she will be confined to her childhood home with her doting but dotty mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata, Shortland Street), an ankle monitor ensuring she can’t abscond. Their reunion suffers from the mismatch of the former’s petulant attitude and the latter’s persistent affection, but soon something else tests their tentative bond. Strange noises and supernatural happenings ripple throughout their household, and though Kylie initially dismisses Miriam’s superstitions, she quickly comes share the view that there’s more going on.

Cue all manner of charmingly creepy and comic antics in a narrative that also dallies with an eclectic range of eccentric supporting characters, delves into strands of a brooding backstory, and shows ingenuity not just in the scenarios the protagonists find themselves in, but also in new uses for everyday items. An endearingly eager security guard (Glen-Paul Waru, Russian Snark) and a condescending counsellor (Cameron Rhodes, Agent Anna) become ensconced in the Bucknell family’s dramas as the sinister occurrences ramp up; however, as is always the case, not everything is as it seems.

While there is plenty of mirth to be found in the opposing reactions to the peculiar predicament, as well as ample moments designed to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, the key to Housebound is its willingness to keep pushing and expanding its scenario – but never past the point of cohesion. The film’s setting may be principally contained to a suitably eerie dwelling, but its scope ranges far beyond the usual abode-oriented unnerving efforts, throwing into the mix an odd-couple paranormal investigation, a subversion of authority figures and a contemplation of the hallmarks of maturity.

Laughs and shocks continuously ensue in the energetic offering, largely due to Johnstone’s deft tonal handling of both the self-effacing and spooky elements of his genres, and his ability to furnish each through an involving central mystery that flies free from predictability. As a veteran of New Zealand television’s The Jaquie Brown Diaries, he demonstrates deft timing, the comedic hits keeping on coming. As a newcomer to the big screen, he shows visual flair befitting the wealth of relevant cinema classics he pays homage to in his content, particularly when the threat of physical danger becomes more imminent. Comparisons to the early work of Peter Jackson are obvious but earned, especially in a final act that revels in the deliciously off-kilter.

Johnstone’s casting also deserves praise, notably the perfectly pitched pairing of O'Reilly and Te Wiata. Their strained mother-daughter relationship is fleshed out beyond the confines of convenience, and the emotions that underscore their tension – one desperate to reconnect, the other deep in a life of running away – shine through in their portrayals. Both ace the one-liner-riddled dialogue, show their mettle when things get tough, and cultivate an engaging rapport with their co-stars. Excelling at the horrific and comedic is their remit, as it is of Housebound itself, a delightful dance with the bloodcurdling and sidesplitting.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Director: Gerard Johnstone
New Zealand, 2014, 109 mins

Sydney Underground Film Festival
4 – 7 September

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay