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In a year crowded with excellent horror and genre films that managed to fly below the mainstream radar, there was still one film that stood out, head and shoulders, as my favorite horror film of the year: Gerard Johnstone’s astounding debut, Housebound (2014). This wasn’t the scariest film of the year, although it had plenty of frights and atmosphere to spare. It certainly wasn’t the most horrific film of the year, although it doesn’t skimp on the grim stuff, either. For my money, Housebound was, quite simply, the best synthesis of all of the horror elements that I look for and love, the single best representation of what I truly enjoy when I sit down to watch a film. I may watch and enjoy many different kinds of movies but few filmmakers have managed to reach straight into my brain in the way that Johnstone does: in many ways, this is the epitome of what I look for in a horror-comedy.

Beginning with a dynamic two-person assault on an ATM machine that quickly collapses into a comedy of errors, we’re introduced to our protagonist, the fabulous Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly). Tough as nails, smart, sarcastic, cynical and an all-around badass, Kylie is probably one of the coolest characters I’ve run across in a film in quite some time. As far as I’m concerned, she compares favorably with Kurt Russell’s immortal Snake Plissken in the badassitude department. Caught and sentenced for her attempted theft, Kylie receives the single worst punishment she could hope for: eight months of house arrest under the “watchful” eye of her screwy mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata), and step-dad, Graeme (Ross Harper).

Kylie and Miriam get along like oil and water for any number of reasons, not least of which is that Miriam is a superstitious believer in any and every paranormal thing possible, whereas Kylie has a tremendous amount of trouble believing in anything at all, let alone some mumbo-jumbo that she can’t see. Determined to make her mother’s life a living hell, Kylie proceeds to act like the world’s oldest teenager, sulking about, eating her parents out of house and home and, in general, acting like a spoiled, self-entitled little brat.

All of this changes, however, when Kylie happens to overhear her mom call into a radio show and discuss their “haunted” house. Initially passing the whole thing off as more of her mom’s loony fantasies, Kylie is forced to change her tune when she has an unexplained occurrence of her own. Determined to find a rational explanation, Kylie begins to research the house’s history, hoping to disprove her poor mother’s beliefs along the way. While this is going on, Kylie must also navigate around her dopey counselor, Dennis (Cameron Rhodes), as well as Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the friendly tech who works for the company that monitors Kylie’s ankle bracelet and happens to be a firm believer in the paranormal. Kylie continues to experience things that she just can’t explain and she’s forced into the one partnership that she would never, in a million years, expect to make: her own mother.

Before we go any further, let me state, for the record, that I absolutely loved this film. I’m a person who tends to have intense reactions to movies, both good and bad, although it will often take a particular kind of film to draw the most intense reactions out of me: Housebound was that film. Something about the film drew me in from the very first frame and I stayed on its wave-length all the way through the final credits. Housebound is the kind of movie that I look forward to owning, in physical form, the kind of film that will “elevate” my humble collection, for what that’s worth. In the simplest way possible, it’s great…really, really great. Let’s see if I can’t explain why.

For one thing, Housebound looks absolutely amazing: Simon Riera’s cinematography is gorgeous, showcasing the marvelously creepy old house to stunning effect. It’s truly difficult to believe that Riera works, primarily, in TV and shorts: everything about Housebound screams “veteran cinematographer,” from the shot composition to the framing and the intuitive ways he works with depth-of-field. My hat’s off to Riera for coming up with one of the best looking films of the whole year: bravo, sir…bravo!

You can’t have a great film without a great script, however, and Johnstone certainly doesn’t disappoint there. Truth be told, Housebound is kind of brilliant: not only is the film laugh-out-loud funny, it’s also quite chilling and moving, in equal doses, which is certainly no mean feat. The film’s mythology isn’t particularly original (in fact, much of the film recalls fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996), at least in tone, if not specifics) but it’s nicely realized and doesn’t seem moldy or overly obvious. There’s also some surprising weight to the mother-daughter relationship, which gives the whole film an underlying gravitas that’s belied by the constantly arch tone: it’s a delicate balancing act but Housebound manages to come across as sweet without seeming cloying and obvious: again, that’s a damn handy hat trick to pull off.

How are the actual horror aspects, though? As far as I’m concerned, top-notch. The true key to effective horror, as far as I’m concerned, will always be atmosphere and mood, two areas in which Housebound easily excels. Although it’s the furthest thing from graphic, Johnstone’s isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and there were at least a couple organic jump scares that actually made me jump. Kudos to a great production design team who manage to give everything the appropriate creepy touch: it’s a suitably classy affair but the horror still shines through, loud and clear.

When it all comes down to it, however, there are two very potent reasons why Housebound is such a great damn movie: Morgana O’Reilly and Rima Te Wiata. Quite frankly, the two are perfect: there isn’t one single note, one movement, one affectation or one line delivery that I would change with either performer, were I in such a position to do so. O’Reilly’s performance as Kylie ranks up with my favorite cinematic badasses ever: I can’t help but return to the Snake Plissken comparison because it just feels so apt. When Kylie really gets going, she’s damn near unstoppable: I would love to see a franchise precipitated around her shrugging her way through various evil situations, sort of like an ever more cynical and irritable version of Bruce Campbell’s Ash.

Te Wiata, for her part, is nothing short of a marvel: she makes Miriam such a twitchy, neurotic, nearly unbearable ball of nerves that it seems impossible to ever empathize with the character. That Miriam is never anything less than 100% likable, then, is nothing short of a miracle: I’ve seen lots of great performances, over the year, but to not mention Te Wiata would be the most criminal form of neglect. Even better, the duo mesh perfectly as mother and daughter: they’re such an inspired team that I’m really hoping for a continuation of the partnership, even if they switch up the details. I honestly feel that O’Reilly and Te Wiata are one of the most inspired comic teams of this decade and can only hope that Housebound serves merely as the opening act of a great partnership.

I could go on and on, really, but anything more that I say runs the risk of spoiling any of Housebound’s myriad surprises. There’s a genuine sense of invention and wide-eyed enthusiasm that’s quite infectious: I find it rather impossible to believe that anyone wouldn’t be completely sucked into the film by the five-minute mark. In a year where lots of first-time filmmakers surprised me with some pretty stunning debuts, Gerard Johnstone’s was one of the most shocking and utterly delightful. Suffice to say that Housebound managed to rocket straight into my list of favorite films after a single viewing: this is one of those films, like Pulp Fiction (1994) or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), that I look forward to having a very long, happy relationship with. Here’s to hoping that Housebound is just the tip of the iceberg and that Johnstone proves to be one of our very brightest, best new talents.