I watched M3GAN the other day. ‘Twas a decent entry in the killer-doll genre. It did a workman-like job of pushing the tropes into the present world of AI and robotics.
Along the way I learned director Gerad Johnstone got the M3GAN gig due to his work on a film called Housebound. This required investigation. Turns out Johnstone is a Kiwi filmmaker, which pretty much guarantees he is inspired by Peter Jackson. Housebound also had a solid logline: “a woman is under house arrest in a haunted house.”
Add all that together, and we must look at this movie. No spoilers.
Housebound stars Morgana O’Reilly as the woman under house arrest. She got off to a shaky start. She brought nothing to the table but being sullen. Sullen actresses need to be stopped because they have infiltrated the highest levels of films. Zoe Kravitz got to be Catwoman by being sullen. Lea Seydoux got to be a Bond girl in, not one, but two, Bond movies by being sullen. Call me crazy, but I don’t think actresses whose range is A to PMS should be awarded such roles. They should be relegated to playing waitresses waiting for their shift to be over.
Fortunately, O’Reilly got better as the movie went along. A degree of sullenness makes sense for the character. She is on a dead-end path, after all. A mystery to solve gives her a quest that gradually brings her out of her funk and back to life.
Rima Te Wiata plays O’Reilly’s mom. She is sufficiently mousy and long-suffering. Teaming up with her daughter to play ghostbusters is a way to repair their estranged relationship. Supporting the mother-daughter dynamic is Glen-Paul Waru as the security officer/wannabe ghost hunter who monitors O’Reilly’s ankle bracelet, Cameron Rhodes as O’Reilly’s counselor, Mick Innes as the creepy neighbor and Ross Harper as the stepfather.
The ensemble is effective. None of them carry the baggage of fame, so they all disappear into their roles and come off as real characters. Furthermore, none of them are check-boxes. They are simply a group of ordinary folks who cross paths with something out of the ordinary.
Head of the house
That brings us to Johnstone. Johnstone wrote and directed Housebound. Since its budget was only $400,000, he likely had complete control, and it is interesting to see what he did with it. Since this review is spoiler-free, we can’t analyze too deeply, however.
First, we’ll look at what doesn’t work. The first half of Housebound drags pretty badly. It follows the standard haunted-house formula of setting the stage with some mysterious happenings. Unfortunately, it does not establish any sense of dread. O’Reilly goes through these scenes with all of the trepidation of a woman going through a grocery store.
Part of this can be chalked up to tone. Housebound is not a straight horror film. It is a horror-comedy, but that description oversells it. It is not horror-comedy like Tremors. The type of humor in Housebound is more of the sensible-chuckle variety.
This sludgy pace and lack of engaging humor drags Housebound down. Fortunately, it picks up a bit as the plot kicks into gear and leads the proceedings down a smoother path. Ultimately, what makes Housebound mostly work is Johnstone’s deft handling of standard stuff. If you took the story apart and laid out all of its pieces, nothing remarkable would reveal itself. Yet, when it is put together, it ends up somewhat interesting in its construction. At various points, the viewer says to themselves, ah, so that’s what’s happening. Then Johnstone somehow keeps the plates spinning and strings things out in an engaging way.
Housebound is also visually solid. Johnstone directs without any flare, but the look of the film is straight out of early Barry Sonnenfeld. Remember him? Before he hit it big with Men in Black, he was director of photography on Cohen and Rob Reiner films. Housebound looks like it could have been filmed on the same set Throw Momma From The Train used. The New Zealand angle probably gives Housebound some personality, as well. It is hard to describe exactly, but normal things take on a different sensibility just by being in New Zealand.
Housebound is not earth-shattering. It is competent. It is interesting to contrast it with M3GAN. Johnstone painted by the numbers on M3GAN, but Housebound shows what he can do when he doesn’t have such well-defined lines to stay within. It is also worth noting that Housebound was Johnstone’s feature film debut. Otherwise, he only worked on a series called The Jaquie Brown Diaries.
The Peter Jackson influences also ended up rather muted. That is fine. Another Kiwi filmmaker, Jason Lei Howden, takes Peter Jackson influences too far. He tries to outdo PJ with films like Deathgasm and Guns Akimbo and comes off as too edge-lord.
Currently, Johnstone has nothing in the queue, other than being rumored to direct a possible sequel to M3GAN. Hopefully, he gets to refine his talents on a few more horror films, which are a smidge more intense. Housebound and M3GAN are pretty tame at the end of the day. I’d like to see what Johnstone could do with an R-rated horror film. He might have the subtlety and sense of humor that pairs well with horror to produce something great like The Frighteners.
Check back every day for movie news and reviews at the Last Movie Outpost