“You cannot punch ectoplasm.”
Summer heat got you feelin’ the cabin fever? I say roll with it and cue up this flick. Tonight we’re talking about Housebound (2014), directed by Gerard Johnstone. I think there is no worse punishment for an angry young woman than to make her face the source of her rage. Being stuck on house arrest with Kylie is a joy. Being on house arrest in her childhood home is even better.
It should come as no surprise that Housebound won both the Best Horror Film and Best Comedy Film at the 2014 Toronto After Dark Film Festival. I hear there’s an American remake in the works and I will be avoiding it because nothing should spoil this perfect laughs-to-chills cocktail.
Housebound is masterfully crafted because it understands the mechanics of horror and comedy, and how they play in the body. We experience both humor and horror on the physical level. Housebound dances between the two sensations – often in the same scene – which makes for a ridiculously entertaining experience.
Humor + Horror = heart emoji
I have to call to attention some of this dancing I mentioned. The humor is perfectly balanced between absurdism and dry wit, with a sprinkling of slapstick. This combination disarms the viewer, setting you up for the horror coming next. I’ll talk plenty about our protagonist, Kylie, but I’ll note here that part of why this movie is so scary is that Kylie is such a capable hero! And if she’s scared, I’m terrified. There are elements of suspense, jump cuts, and some grossout moments. In addition, the plot of this film constantly spirals down new rabbit holes all connecting into Kylie’s feeling of total entrapment. Many familiar horror elements can be found here: the creepy neighbor, the ghost, the bad history of an old building, moving back home, and of course, never being alone.
Some moments of pure bliss:
- Kylie sits on the toilet peeing, then stops her flow when she hears creaking. Pee stream, creaking, silence, pee stream, groans and creaks, silence, pee stream, groans, then Kylie pushes out a forceful pee stream so she can gtfo.
- Kylie wakes up to a seemingly demonic talking bear in the night. She grabs it and slams its head in a drawer over and over again. The bear still churns mechanically and spurts out garbled speech. She punches the bear in the face and then lights it on fire.
- Kylie and Miriam jump back from the bathroom door as a circular saw blade comes barreling through the cheap wood. On the other side of the door, we see Dr. Dennis is wearing safety goggles while he tears through.
- To arm herself from the crazed Dr. Dennis, Kylie puts a cheese grater on her forearm. We think this is meant to be armor, but no! Kylie pins down the doctor and then starts to grate his face with her forearm. SHE GRATES HIS FACE.
Shots and framing
Suburban New Zealand looks an awful lot like suburban America when shot in de-saturated gray tones. We really only see a few sweeping shots of the countryside to emphasize how very in the middle of nowhere they are. After that, almost every scene is indoors. This really emphasizes the claustrophobic vibe. We never see any flashbacks of Kylie’s childhood, but we don’t need to. Her mother’s house is a hoarder’s nest, stuffed and bursting with her childhood toys and memories. Kylie can’t take a step without crashing into a shelf that spills its contents all over her. Her childhood surrounds her in every scene.
Housebound knows its budgetary limits, but we don’t see those limits due to the camera work. Quiet panning around a room and around the back of Kylie, who glares at nothing in front of her, or wide shots of the chaos in each room – we never actually see a ghost, but we feel the ghost. This film understands how spooky regular objects can be. Things like radios, old electronics, voice recordings, and childhood itself are given space in the dialogue.
One of my favorite scenes happens early on. Kylie goes upstairs to smoke while she waits for Miriam to get off the phone. A close-up of Kylie’s fingers on a knob, turning up the volume of an old radio. All environment noise fades away and the radio’s voices come in in that mysterious, muffled way they do when you wear headphones. Kylie sits in the dark of her house, smoke rising around her, as she listens to the creepy and smooth tones of her mother’s voice tell the world about her house’s secrets. The shot pans around to Kylie, then down the old paneling on the front of the radio. We understand there is deep history and deep resentment here.
Real Kylie and the Fake Ghost-Girl
Although the ghost girl isn’t actually real, I’m ok with that, because she still serves her purpose in the narrative. Kylie won’t admit the kinship she feels with Lizzy. Both are trapped in the house now, and both have been trapped since they were angry teenagers. Kylie is a sneak and a thief, and she understands how these traits work in another girl. She can only solve the mystery of what happened to Lizzy through using her gifts in a helpful way. I love how stealing, breaking-and-entering, and hot-wiring a car save the day here. I’ve never seen that before.
Once Kylie starts to see possibility in her own (and Lizzy’s) story, she begins to see her house as not claustrophobic, but full of resources. This seems to be a survival tactic she used while living there as a child. Revisiting that tactic is humbling for her. When Kylie stops seeing her house as a danger, she sees how she is really the danger to herself and others – both physically and emotionally.
I effing love Kylie. She should be unlikeable, but she’s not. Kylie takes on many of the scares with physical violence, which I found hilarious. When asked how she plans to handle the ghostly presence, she says she’ll “smash it in the face.” The film opens with Kylie using dynamite to blow open an ATM. We understand that nothing this girl does will be delicate. I appreciate that Housebound doesn’t linger on her substance abuse. Far more interesting is the root of her troubles, not the substances themselves. We often see her framed in cigarette smoke like she’s just oozing out anger and hatred for her family. She even brushes her teeth angrily. She punches. She swears. She has a wealthy and absent father. I love how resistant Kylie is at first to engage with her haunted house. If a door opens on its own, she gets a power drill and takes it off the hinges. Kylie doesn’t lose herself in this transition to Actual Real Girl; she just learns how to stop hurting people when she moves through life. A remarkable female horror lead. I can’t praise her character enough.
Miriam taps right into Kylie’s frustrations and pours it out like maple syrup. She never stops jabbering on about anything and everything. You get the sense that like her house, she can’t stand for there to be any space (read: silence) not filled in a conversation. At first, she seems to be afraid of Kylie. Once the stressors arrive in ghostly apparitions and stabbings, Miriam acts much more like her daughter, a bit angry and smoking a lot. Her constant banal commentary in moments of stress is random and hysterical. Rima Te Wiata plays her so well and possesses the funniest physical comedy in this film. Miriam’s bad relationship with Kylie isn’t fully explored until the finale, but we know there must be a reason that she would hold on to so much stuff, stuff that doesn’t even belong to the family. She lied to Kylie when they bought the house, so she wouldn’t be scared that a girl was murdered in her bedroom. I think that’s the same reason she hoards all of the house’s original stuff: she thought by bottling everything inside, she would be protecting Kylie from horrors. Miriam grows in the end by accepting what her daughter is capable of and allows her to be a hero.
Lawdy, I love Amos. One of my favorite moments is when Amos interrupts what Miriam and Kylie think is either a break-in or a ghostly visitation. Miriam finally slips that the house is haunted, and Amos whips out a voice recorder and starts recording an EVP session right there on the spot. Even in more casual moments, he always wears his security jacket, like he’s always on the job. Except when he investigates the remains of the scorched demon bear toy – then he dons a full crime scene suit onesie. Amos is a perfect sidekick. He gives Kylie tough love. He literally serves as her guard from leaving her house, and also her guard when she needs protection from the crazy guy next door. Amos is all heart and courage, and we love him for it.
It has to be said that the moment we realize there is no ghost, that instead there is a man living in the walls of her house, oh my God, that is so much worse. We know how to navigate ghosts in a horror flick, right? WTF do we do with an actual person living in your walls??? Then, we see him – mostly hair – and then we see his full gaping face. And I needed a change of pants. Kylie is silently screaming, and so are we. Eugene is truly terrifying when we finally encounter him. The film wraps up all of the ways in which Eugene was trying to help Kylie, and we understand how much of a brother he has been throughout her entire life. But I think even if Kylie had known Eugene was there, she wouldn’t have even noticed him. She was that full of teenage rage.
Stabbing someone with an electrified meat fork
In the finale, Eugene, Miriam, and Kylie are all inside the walls of the house and there is finally no escaping it. Eugene produces a stack of drawings of Kylie’s youth, and for the first time, we get a sense of what her childhood was like. It’s the most honest we’ve seen any of these characters. Kylie’s face reads like she hates herself. Miriam weeps. Kylie knows she can’t be the hero of this story until she faces her past, her mother, and herself. That’s the best part about Eugene’s character – he lets Kylie be the hero. In the final moments, instead of taking out Dr. Dennis, he wakes up Kylie from unconsciousness so she can do it.
Yeah. This horror movie has a happy ending. A big ol’ bow tied around the whole lot kind of ending. And I love that.
Summer’s brutal. I recommend keeping the blinds closed, the lights low, and the horror movies streaming. Stay cool, kiddos.