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Housebound - 2014
Written & Directed by Gerard Johnstone

A number of months back, I wrote about a fun little Irish horror-comedy film that, for me, evoked the spirit of the early and mid 1980s -- the cinematic school that included Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, John Landis and such.  Now I've come across another film that also evokes that era which, for many, means a rock-solid good time at the theater.  This time it comes from New Zealand, and it's called Housebound.

After rebellious 20-something Kylie gets arrested in a badly botched ATM burglary, the judge hands her a sentence that he believes will provide a stable environment in which to rehabilitate; eight months house arrest living with her mother and step-father.  Never mind that she's been running away from that place metaphorically ever since she ran away from it literally.

Kylie's mum is something of a -- shall we say -- natterer, and her step-father is the personification of the color beige.  Actually, that's not fair to beige.  He's like beige as seen in black and white.  So he's easy enough to ignore, but her mother's stream-of-consciousness monologue of meaningless chatter is virtually impossible to escape.  Sure, Kylie's pissy and bitter about being trapped there, but the endless torrent of gossip and commentary has her even more on edge.  Even when Kylie tries to escape her mother's phone blather by listening to the radio in her room, her mother's voice comes out of the radio, sharing with the talk show host her suspicions that the house is haunted.

It would be easy for the film to portray Kylie as "the good guy" in this dynamic, but it's much more fair than that, and honest about her flaws.  She can't resist the opportunity to mock her mother.  Soon after, however, the creaks and squeaks in the house start to sound more meaningful to her too.  As is the case with so many parent-child relationships, she fears that she might be becoming the mother she couldn't wait to get away from as much as she fears that maybe there is something else in the house.  After a spooky incident in the basement triggers her radio ankle bracelet, Amos the security officer assigned to check in on her takes an immediate interest in the case.  It just so happens that he's an amateur paranormalist.

Despite the experience in the basement, Kylie remains somewhat skeptical, seemingly in reaction to the level of Amos' interest, but they both want to find out what is going on.  Meanwhile, her visiting social worker looks for excuses from what she's experiencing, mostly suggesting that it's all in her head, and her head is not to be trusted.  Having called her mother crazy for believing in ghosts, Kylie is more reluctant than ever to communicate her own concerns.

Housebound is built on a story of mystery and creeping fear with a few good twists, surprises and misdirections.  It's furnished with some very funny moments, most of them exceptionally dry.  And beneath it all, it's richly carpeted with themes of family and personal healing.  There are tense and startling moments, but it's not especially scary, which is okay because it's immensely fun in a way that never feels cheap.  I really can't get over what a well-crafted film this is.

This is writer/director Gerard Johnstone's first film (coming off a NZ sitcom) and he's shown an impressive aptitude for rich and satisfying storytelling.  I eagerly anticipate whatever he decides to do next.  Everyone in the cast does a great job, but the real standout is Rima Te Wiata as Kylie's mother.  Her nervous, chattering energy is so convincing that you'll be tempted to storm off to your room and listen to your headphones yourself.

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