When one thinks of New Zealand’s contribution to horror cinema, thoughts immediately turn to those brief but halcyon days when young Pete Jackson reigned in blood. Abdicating from the throne of gore, he stayed in Wellington, made his best film to date, Heavenly Creatures (1995), and got into bed with Hollywood. There have been other horror movies and directors, of course, but it is very slim pickings and nothing that rings as loudly as Jacko’s splatstick offerings. It leaves the director looking distinctly like a miracle child, a genuine one-off or something akin to a cultural aberration.
Housebound is the best horror movie produced in the country since Braindead (1992). Director and writer Gerard Johnstone’s deft handling of a haunted house tale, the equally haunted past and exciting plot turns are tied and anchored by an unlikely figure, one that rarely occupies movies of this ilk: a stroppy teenage petty crim, who is less than impressed with all things that go bump in the night.
Imagine a traditionally staged ghost story interrupted by a character parachuted in from a Ken Loach or 1990s Mike Leigh drama. Kylie Bucknell, a fabulous performance by Morgana O’Reilly, dresses like a Lisbeth Salander fangirl, swears like a sailor, can barely tolerate her mum and stepdad and hates authority figures with a passion. Placed under house arrest and electronically tagged after her latest escapade – attempting to steal an ATM machine from its hole in the wall – she is grounded by the law for eight months. The creepy old house is said to be haunted, but Kylie scoffs at that idea repeatedly. That is, until she’s slowly drawn into a decades-old murder mystery.
Housebound, as with all the best horror comedies, finds a perfect balance between the light and the dark. It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Like Buddy Giovinazzo’s criminally unreleased A Night of Nightmares and Ti West’s The Innkeepers, Johnstone created people to give a damn about, and then found a marvellous cast to fill the roles.
Kylie might be a hard nut to crack but, as the story progresses, she finds purpose away from her dosser lifestyle. There is even the prospect of a thawing in the relationship with her mother. Freaky, thrilling, and with a natural humour and ear for dialogue that really could have been written to accommodate a social realist drama, where bickering, foul language and insults are batted back and forth, Housebound is a smart spin on old tropes.