Even if you only have my word to go on here, trust me when I say that I don’t impress easily, especially when it comes to movies. Yeah, sure, there’s plenty of stuff I like (and, as longtime readers of this site can no doubt attest to, plenty more that I don’t), but even most of the flicks that I give a “thumbs-up” to are of the “well, ya know, it’s good for what it is” or “sure, you’ve seen this a million times before, but this is still a reasonably clever new take on things” variety. It’s not really all that often I call on a filmmaker to, say, stand up and take a bow or anything.
And on that note — Gerard Johnstone, stand up and take a bow.
Don’t know the name? Rest assured that within a few years, you’ll be hearing a lot more of it, because Hollywood is bound to take notice of talent of this caliber. Johnstone is the writer/director behind 2014’s Housebound, an unassuming, unpretentious, horror/comedy gem from way down under that’s just been added to the instant streaming queue on Netflix (before it’s even available on DVD and Blu-ray, at least here in the US) and that proves New Zealand has more going for it in cinematic terms than just Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth Empire. Yeah, okay — while some of the blood-n’-guts humor and quirkiness on display here certainly are reminiscent, tonally speaking, of the just-mentioned Mr. Jackson’s earlier works, there’s a dash of Gormenghast and Addams Family in here, as well, and to call the end result a “unique concoction” is at once both absolutely true and an understatement of near-criminal proportions.
On, then, to the particulars : serial juvenile delinquent Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) has run afoul of the courts one too many times for a person of her relatively tender years, and has found herself sentenced to nine months’ house arrest at her ancestral home situated along the picturesque Twin Coast Highway. It’s smack dab in the middle of nowhere (as far as she’s concerned, at any rate — having been there, I kinda like the area, myself), and to make matters even worse, her possibly-delusional mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata — there’s a good Kiwi name for you) is waiting to welcome her daughter home with less-than-open arms. Oh, and the joynt’s haunted, too.
Or so says mommy dearest, at any rate — too-cool-for-school Kylie isn’t buying it. But then, of course, things start going bump in the night fairly shortly after her arrival, and now she’s not so sure. And this is the point at which I assure you that, no matter what you might think right now, you’ve actually never seen anything quite like Housebound.
At its core, this actually ends up being a murder mystery, and while the leap from “haunted house story” to “whodunnit?” isn’t too large no matter how one measures it, the way Johnstone goes about it is fresh and amusing enough to be downright invigorating (if you’re in the right mood), and he slyly throws in a more-than-generous helping of twisted humor along the way with so much ease and charm that you can’t help but fall in love with the whole vibe he’s creating no matter how stubbornly you may be trying to resist. So don’t. Just go with the flow.
Is it flawless? Hell no, but what is? There are a number of (blood) red herrings here, some of which feel a little bit forced (though most don’t), and the pacing can get a bit wonky at times, but any shortcomings are more than made up for with flat-out terrific lead performances, superb atmospherics, witty and intelligent dialogue, and a number of genuinely clever and imaginative twists and turns. It’s not often you get a chance to say “well, didn’t see that one coming,” and Housebound gives you the chance to say it numerous times.
How good is it? For me, the answer to that was “good enough to watch a second time just a day later even though I already knew exactly what was going to happen.” How many mystery-themed movies can you say that about? So drop what you’re doing and watch it already — please! You’ll thank me later. Or, probably, sooner.