Horror movies are predictable by nature. More often than not, they are driven by formulas and routines that repeat endlessly because they work. For some filmmakers, these tropes turn into traps. But for clever wiseacres like debuting writer/director Gerard Johnstone they can be perfect set ups for left field twists and self-conscious jokes. Johnstone’s Housebound is a horror movie made by a clear fanatic for the genre who knows exactly what his audiences wants and more importantly how to subvert those expectations. It’s ultimately all just a lil’ lark, but one so delightfully conceived and executed that it’s a sheer joy for anyone with a sweet tooth for morbid, blood soaked entertainment. That Johnstone comes from New Zealand unavoidably draws comparisons to a young whippersnapper Peter Jackson, and thankfully Johnstone stands up to that comparison while also carving out a voice distinctly his own.
Morgana O’Reilly stars as a young woman so troubled that even her troubles have troubles. She opens the film struggling to smash up an ATM to get at the sweet gooey cash inside, but is quickly caught by police due to an unfortunate run in with a speed bump. The court sentences her to house arrest with her parents. At first that means being forced into awkward familial chatter with her mother (hysterically played by Rima Te Wiata), a desperately eccentric woman whose oppressive cheeriness even includes complementing her daughter on being lucky for having such a fancy piece of electronics on her leg to keep her housebound (see title). Then as the movie goes on, that court ordered conceit turns into a way to keep O’Reilly locked in a house that seems to be haunted (creepy possessed dolls, mysterious vanishing figures et al). Of course, for a self-conscious filmmaker like Johnstone’s that’s just the start of the genre and tonal twists. The director nimbly skips between genres at will, his movie held together primarily through the consistency of eccentric characterizations and steadily rising sense of suspense.
As part of the genre flip-flops, O’Reilly is thankfully not some shrieking damsel in distress. She’s an attitude that drags a personality behind it, picking apart her mother and psychiatrist with harsh barbs when anyone dares to offer help. Once the supernatural shenanigans kick into high gear, the woman would rather quickly punch a haunted doll in the face and fling it into the fireplace than cower in fear in the nearest available corner. She’s a fantastic unconventional lead for this type of material that Johnstone milks for maximum narrative drive and comedy and O’Reilly delivers in steady, steely-eyed naturalism. As a writer, Johnstone has a clear knack for quirky characterization and uses it to ensure that every side character gets at least one hilarious scene of awkward human behavior. As a director, he’s a classical stylist who knows exactly how to stage and tease a scare scene. As the movie evolves, Johnstone delights in mixing laughs, scares, and genres to keep his viewers off balanced and strapped in with a goofy grin on their face. When it works, the film is a blast (especially when the director finally cuts loose on gore and freely blasts entrails all over the screen).
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. By the time Housebound hits its third act, Johnstone’s desire to tie up every character thread and explain every mystery can get in the way of the good time he’s crafting. There are a few too many long-winded dialogue scenes explaining the plot and a perhaps even a couple twists and genre-leaps too far. It all concludes in a brilliant climax, but undeniably stumbles slightly along the way to get there as Johnstone finally decides what genre of film he wants to commit to. On the plus side, these minor stumbling blocks can be easily explained as the growing pains of a first time filmmaker figuring out how to make a movie. What he lacks in consistency, Johnstone easily makes up for in bursts of ideas and energy. The man clearly has the talent to be an off-kilter genre-auteur and now he’s proven he can do it. The next step is building on what’s been established in Housebound to deliver something that could be a new genre classic. I think the fresh filmmaker has it in him and it’ll be exciting to see where he goes from here.