Housebound thrives on an aura of grab-bag genre ludicrousness that occasionally recalls the resolutely bat-shit crazy The People Under the Stairs. At its best, the film is a knowingly deadpan parody of the challenges of parents and children living together, after the latter have grown up to accrue crushed resentments of their own. Writer-director Gerard Johnstone gets a number of details amusingly and poignantly right—understanding that it’s the small irritations that grow to plague you in a cramped and desperate shared-living arrangement. Though, admittedly, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) has to weather more than casual frustrations with her daughter, Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly), who’s on house arrest after shoving a stick of dynamite down an ATM machine. Kylie is petulant and entitled, clearly nursing grudges over the past, and prone to pushing Miriam and her boyfriend, Graeme (Ross Harper), to the sidelines of their own house. The joke is that the crime that brought mother and daughter back into one another’s respective peripheries is ultimately rendered an afterthought, while slights like the premature eating of a meatloaf authentically hurt Miriam’s feelings, embodying as it does the depth of her daughter’s contempt.
The film is unsurprisingly structured as a coming-of-age story that allows Kylie to learn a lesson or two about selflessness and social responsibility. The surprise is its vivid empathy for Miriam and Graeme, two aging adults who’ve found a quasi-comforting routine at the expense of any real hope or stimulation. They aren’t the unsympathetic, conformist parents who are normally utilized in young-adult films so as to pander to audiences who wish to be assured of their generation’s misunderstood destiny. Kylie is in obvious pain over something that will eventually be (murkily) spelled out, but she’s also understood to be a pill who has yet to come out of that tunnel vision that assumes everyone else to be merely supporting characters in the figurative movie of her life.
It’s a pity, then, that Miriam’s struggle to gain emotional terra firma with Kylie isn’t affirmed, symbolically, by the disturbances that arrive in the night, which reveal the family residence to be a profoundly troubled former halfway house. The ghosts who eventually crash the party appear to have sprung from an entirely different film, and while that’s partially the point, one misses the unexpected resonances of the first act. The gore effects, the bombshell revelations, and the chases are all competently and engagingly orchestrated, but Johnstone’s direction favors a disappointingly literal-minded either/or structure: It’s either the human-interest element or the horror shenanigans. The filmmaker isn’t able to allow a sense of reciprocity to bloom between the threads, and, as the convolutions stack up on top of one another, you grow to feel as if you’re arbitrarily changing the channel back and forth from a diverting horror film to a promising odd-couple comedy. The results aren’t unpleasurable, but they aren’t a full, coherent, living and breathing movie either.