A marvelously entertaining combo of haunted-house thriller, murder mystery and domestic comedy, “Housebound” marks a mighty impressive feature bow for Kiwi scripter-helmer-editor Gerard Johnstone. Featuring a dynamite central performance by Morgana O’Reilly as an angry young troublemaker who gets more than she bargained for while serving a home detention order, this near-flawless mix of laughs and scares is one of the genre-related highlights of the year. Armed with everything required to become a hit with general viewers, the pic is currently winning admirers on a festival run that includes the audience award at Scotland’s Dead by Dawn horror fest. XLrator Media will release it Stateside this fall.

Separating “Housebound” from most films of its type is super-smart plotting and confident tonal control, as Johnstone’s screenplay throws one terrific curve ball after another and never allows its goofy humor to compromise its genuinely scary components. Though destined to be pigeonholed as a horror-comedy, the pic plays more like a fast-paced fantasy-thriller with a generous side order of droll dialogue.

In a hilarious opening sequence, the dislodged head of a sledgehammer spectacularly curtails an ATM smash-and-grab robbery attempt by petty criminal Kylie Bucknell (O’Reilly) and an anonymous male accomplice. A snarling ball of venom with a lengthy rap sheet, twentysomething Kylie is spared prison by a lenient judge who says home detention and regular sessions with a psychologist, Dennis (Cameron Rhodes), will provide the stable environment she needs to turn her wayward life around.

With those words still lingering, audiences will chuckle when Kylie arrives at the creepy-looking house of her childhood to begin an eight-month stretch. The dwelling is home to her stepfather, Graeme (Ross Harper), an oddball who’s seen but rarely heard, and her mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata), an endearing chatterbox who believes the house is haunted. Kylie’s petulant behavior and eye-rolling mockery of Miriam’s claim establishes a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that will eventually outgrow its comical roots and bring real heart to the story. The slow change starts when Kylie begins seeing things that make her believe “something” is indeed lurking in the basement and within the walls.

Several spine-tingling incidents later, Kylie seeks help from Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the security company guy hired to monitor her electronic ankle bracelet. Cleverly introduced as a fairly bland and functional character, Amos leaps wonderfully to life at the first mention of supernatural activity. Armed with old-school equipment, including a Polaroid camera and a microcassette recorder, this sweet-natured nerd with a passion for all things paranormal forms a splendidly eccentric detective partnership with the tough but mellowing Kylie.

The narrative shifts into high gear when the odd-couple investigators stumble onto an old murder mystery that might just explain everything. The amusing key to their theory is a set of dentures worn by Kraglund (Mick Innes), the weirdo next door who likes burning things in his backyard. A very funny attempt by Amos and Kylie to snatch the evidence triggers another terrific plot twist, propelling the yarn toward a rattling good finale featuring the highly amusing use of a cheese grater as a deadly weapon.

O’Reilly is simply fabulous as the firebrand who comes to realize that maybe the whole world doesn’t hate her and her mother isn’t a crackpot after all. Returning to feature films after a long hiatus, Te Wiata is spot-on as a mother whose endless prattling is amusing, but whose sadness at not knowing her daughter is never lost in the process. Embodying the laconic, self-effacing humor that distinguishes the best Kiwi comedy, Waru is entirely lovable as the enthusiastic amateur sleuth.

Pic looks and sounds great. Johnstone’s razor-sharp editing of the pristine widescreen images by d.p. Simon Riera maximizes the impact of every fright and every laugh, and the production design and art direction of the cluttered house work similarly well in creating an environment that’s welcoming from some angles and scary from others. Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s eclectic score completes a first-class technical package.

Film Review: ‘Housebound’

Reviewed at Puchon Intl. Film Festival (World Fantastic Cinema), July 20, 2014. (Also in SXSW, Melbourne, Fantasia film festivals.) Running time: 109 MIN.

  • Production: (New Zealand) A Rialto Distribution (in New Zealand)/XLrator Media (in U.S.) release of a Semi-Professional Pictures production, in association with New Zealand Film Commission. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Luke Sharpe. Executive producers, Michael Kumerich, Chris Lambert, Daniel Story, Ant Timpson.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Gerard Johnstone. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Simon Riera; editor, Johnstone; music, Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper; production designers, Jane Bucknell, Anya Whitlock; art directors, Lyn Bergquist, Ross McGarva, Laura Smith, Haley Williams; costume designer, Lissy Mayer; sound (Dolby Digital), Shane Taipari; visual effects supervisor, Matt Westbrooke; stunt coordinators, Aaron Lupton, Steve McQuillan; line producer, Garett Mayhow; assistant directors, Natasha Romaniuk, Fraser Ross; second unit director, Luke Sharpe.
  • With: Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Cameron Rhodes, Milen Baird, Ross Harper, Ryan Lampp, Wallace Chapman, Mick Innes, Ian Mune.