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Recently, someone reminded me of the 2014 New Zealand horror comedy Housebound. It’s a shoestring budget indie about a bratty young woman whose house arrest leads to some very unexpected scares. The film has long flown under the mainstream radar, despite winning a cult following from horror fans.
When I first saw it about five years ago, I loved it — but I haven’t thought about it much since except as a little-known backburner title whenever anyone asks me for horror movie recs. But now, remembering it in 2020, I immediately wanted to see how it held up in a post-pandemic atmosphere.
My hunch was that Housebound, with its fixation on forced intimacy and confinement in too-familiar spaces, would be the perfect aperitif after eight-plus months in quarantine. And I was right: Housebound still slaps — and today, it plays like a wry grace note to a year of living safely.
Housebound’s chief delight is a main character who’s completely over everything
Housebound is writer-director Gerard Johnstone’s only feature film, but its unique tone has the confidence of an established, more experienced screenwriter. It’s one of those films that takes a while to figure out; it’s not immediately clear what the stakes are, how one should watch the movie, or even who to root for. But once you settle into it, like the spooky house at its center, Housebound is full of surprises.
The action kicks off when our impudent main character, a former addict named Kylie, gets sentenced to eight months of house arrest after a failed attempt to rob an ATM. Sent back to live with her mother and stepdad in their creepy rural manse, Kylie is fed up with her forced confinement from day one. Morgana O’Reilly is unforgettably and delightfully unlikeable as Kylie: She’s rebellious and sullen, rude, occasionally violent, and perpetually exasperated. She’s totally over everything and everyone around her. In other words, she’s a walking 2020 mood.
And so is the house around her. An oppressively dark, cluttered, unnavigable wood-paneled disaster, Kylie’s childhood home feels labyrinthine and suffocating, even though it’s hardly the Overlook Hotel. It’s just a dilapidated former bed and breakfast, or so her mom tells her.
It doesn’t help that Kylie’s mother, played by Rima Te Wiata with pitch-perfect comedic timing and well-meaning befuddlement, has always believed the house is haunted. Years ago, she swears that she saw a figure in a sheet. It moved. What’s more, she’s certain that Kylie saw it too. But Kylie no longer remembers what she saw; all Kylie, who’s been living apart from her family for some time, can say for certain is that the moment she moves back home, strange things start happening. Since she’s come home, things go bump in the night, food goes missing, and a demonic Teddy Ruxpin bear keeps activating itself.
While the house may or may not be teeming with ghosts, it is teeming with secrets — secrets that Kylie is only just now starting to learn. With the help of her house arrest officer, Amos, she begins to explore her family secrets, and it doesn’t take long for her to stumble across a big one: the alleged bed and breakfast is actually a former residential asylum, once home to a wayward girl much like herself, whose brutal murder has never been solved.
Is Kylie’s house actually haunted by the murder victim’s spirit? Is the horror all in her head? Or is she experiencing terror from a much more corporeal source?
It’s tempting to spoil more details — particularly to tell you about all the real-life horror stories upon which Housebound draws its wildest twist — but you should experience the story as it unfolds for yourself.
Housebound begins like a fairly straightforward ghost story, but then takes a few turns that keep it tonally interesting. It’s usually billed as a horror comedy or a comedy thriller, but those labels undersell how tense and dark the film gets. What We Do in the Shadows also debuted in 2014, and its ascendence as the reigning New Zealand horror comedy might have both overshadowed Housebound and dictated how audiences approached it. But for me, the movie is a bit too tense, and a bit too serious, to approach as a parody. It’s frequently tongue in cheek, yes, but it takes its terror seriously.
Furthermore, Housebound is serious about the ways in which its surly anti-heroine is subtly undermined by most of the people around her and even her situation itself. If an entire house could gaslight you, Kylie’s house would be doing exactly that, and that makes the movie a perversely relatable treat for anyone feeling like their prolonged confinement is driving them a bit mad.
Housebound is a permanent 2020 mood
Accurate representation of me after a year of self-quarantining.Alameda Entertainment
Kylie’s time under house arrest soon grows quite eventful, but it starts out with the palpable slow slog of eternity. Kylie seethes under her punishment the way all of us, at some point during a year of retreat from Covid-19, probably have.
Although we don’t get much backstory on Kylie’s relationship with her mom and stepdad, the tension they greet each other with upon her return home lingers for most of the movie. What’s sweet about this, if a movie whose main character once punched her mother in the face can be called sweet, is that Housebound always frames both Kylie and her mother as vulnerable to one another’s unwitting slights and microaggressions. A flatter script could have easily made Kylie the hard-edged instigator of most of the conflict between her and her mother, but O’Reilly always lets us see how much Kylie cares about her family beneath her ongoing frustration with her confinement.
The movie also never lets us forget that Kylie is a recovering addict, and that this one fact frequently defines her to most of society. I rewatched Housebound directly after refreshing myself on a true-crime case in which police repeatedly refused to take a sex worker’s claims seriously because her profession diminished her credibility. So I was particularly attuned to the amount of time that Kylie spends in Housebound fighting to be heard and taken seriously, only to receive the repeated message that her word matters less because of her status as an addict and as a repeat offender.
But if Kylie starts out thoroughly unlikeable, Housebound makes the argument that a rough, rude, defiant, violent 20-something is a good person to have around in a crisis. And sometimes, the film suggests, having to ride out a period of sequestering with your relatives is just the kind of thing that builds character. Well, that and getting the ultimate validation of finding out that everyone who undermined you was wrong all along.
There’s a certain narrative about the pandemic that’s become dominant. It’s one centered on all the plucky bread-makers and Zoom-partiers and amateur interior designers and newfound plant lovers who made the most of a shitty time spent social distancing from most of their communities. But for the rest of us, we who’ve been stuck in a stuffy, claustrophobic environment with people we frequently can’t stand, Housebound is a permanent mood. Kylie wanders through most of the film the way I wandered through most of 2020 — glassy-eyed, openly horrified at everyone else’s bullshit, and desperate to go outside.
At one point her mom scolds Kylie for still being in bed well into the afternoon. “Oh, no, I’m late!” Kylie gasps.
“For what?” the mom asks.
“For nothing,” Kylie retorts, rolling over and going back to sleep.
Yep. That’s 2020 in a nutshell.
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