Monday, October 20, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: HOUSEBOUND Is Here to Save Halloween

Maybe it's just me, but 2014 seems to have been a weak year for horror so far. There have been a few hidden gems (Grand Piano and Witching & Bitching are the only ones I've seen), but as far as anything monumental, there hasn't been much of anything causing a blip on my radar. There's some entries yet to be released that I'm holding out hopes for (The Babadook, It Follows, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Open Windows and Cooties), but otherwise it's been one heck of a dry spell. Thank New Zealand for Housebound, which has shown up just in time to give the Halloween season exactly the kind of film it needs: scary, funny and crafted by true lovers of the genre.

Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) has just been arrested for an attempted robbery, and is sentenced to house arrest in her old home. Her mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata), is a sweet but simple woman, who believes that the house has been haunted ever since they moved in over a decade ago. With the help of the security agent, Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), who is the techie warden of Kylie's ankle bracelet, they start to delve into the history of the house and learn exactly who their mysterious inhabitant really is.

Housebound is one of those horror movies they just don't seem to make anymore. There's substantial talent both in front of and behind the camera, so there's never any kind of cheapness or corner-cutting that comes across on screen. Writer/director Gerard Johnstone has fashioned a film that (if not for certain pieces of technology) looks timeless. It feels like it could have been an early eighties movie, just shot with modern cameras. There's also a complete awareness of how to concoct real tension without resorting to easy jump scares. If I didn't know this was a feature directorial debut, I would have assumed it was made by a time-honored veteran. It's that good.

It must mentioned that one of the movie's strongest elements is its humor. However, the film is willing to be funny (quite funny, actually) without ever turning into a farce. Lots of reviews and blurbs are calling this a horror comedy, and while I understand that evaluation, I don't necessarily agree with it. This is a horror/drama that has a sizable amount of humor in it. It's not on the level of something like Dead Alive or Evil Dead II, where the laughs come from the absurdity of the action. It's rare to see a horror film these days that lets its comedic bits feel much more natural. Everything is either straightforward scares or wacky horror hijinks. Housebound perfectly balances between the two, which makes the dramatic weight of the movie work extraordinarily well.

And that's where the film truly excels. It's always been tough to make horror movies where you genuinely become invested in the characters, because the genre is often propelled by premise instead of people. Housebound had me actually tear up during one part, and that is when I knew this movie was special. I found myself either liking or relating to most of the characters, and when things started getting stabby, I didn't want a single one of them to die. That alone is cause for Housebound's exultation. To populate a film with believable and realistic characters that you grow to relate to and care for throughout the picture is something the horror genre does not often do.

The script does a lot of the work, but the performers bring some real personality to the roles. Kylie, our lead character, is actually the most unlikable member of the ensemble, and remains that way through practically the entire film. Even then, her frustration and antagonistic attitude speaks to the rebellious teenager in all of us, and when we learn about her childhood there's real pathos to be had. Kylie's mother, Miriam, is an absolute joy to behold. It's one of the best portrayals of a caring but conflicted mother I've ever seen, and she threatens to steal the movie. The two actresses play off each other so well that I completely bought them as a real mother/daughter coupling.

Last but not least, this is a razor sharp script. To talk about it too in depth would spoil a lot of the fun, but know that the film plays with your knowledge and expectations of what you assume the story is, and it rewards you with a number of twists and turns that aren't always just shocking, but also have that emotional weight I mentioned earlier. The pace of the film not only gives you plenty of time to get to know the characters, but also allows the scares and surprises to be dealt out in a wonderfully measured way. It's a concentrated restraint that helps keep you hooked, and pays off in spades. With what I know now, I'm eager to watch the film again and think about certain characters' motivations and actions in a new light.

I was worried this Halloween season wouldn't offer anything new to add to my ever-expanding list of holiday appropriate viewing. Housebound has rectified that in the most glorious of ways. It's the perfect Halloween treat. It'll make you laugh and scream, but it will also make you sincerely enjoy and care about the characters you're having a blast with. When a horror movie like that comes around, it needs to get some serious attention. So stop reading this and go watch it!

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