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Photo: ‘His House’/Netflix
Some of the best horror movies are those grounded in real-world fears. In Get Out, it’s the fear among oppressed minorities that our supposed allies don’t really care about us, and that we’re on our own. Strip away the sci-fi elements, and The Invisible Man is ultimately about living in fear of being stalked, threatened, and gaslit by an abusive ex. Even in The Exorcist: a mother’s agony and powerlessness over her child being violated are just as scary as any monster or demon. When horror is rooted in something real, it has a greater emotional resonance.
For His House, it’s about the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
From writer-director Remi Weekes in his feature debut, His House is very effective as both a straight-up haunted-house movie, as well as an illuminating work of social commentary on the immigrant experience. The result is one of the strongest horror movies of the year.
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“Be One of the Good Ones”
The above words come from social worker Mark (Matt Smith) as he shows his latest charges around their dilapidated council house. Bol (Gangs of London’s Sope Dirisu) and his wife Rial (Lovecraft Country’s Wunmi Mosaku) have just arrived in the U.K as refugees, having fled South Sudan. But we soon learn that their stay is conditional: for the time being, they’re not allowed to take jobs and must rely on a stipend, and they must stay at the house they’re assigned to or risk being sent back to the detention center and being deported. The couple is grateful for a roof over their heads, figuring they can fix up the place and begin new lives, yet their arrival is bittersweet having lost their daughter on the journey.
Not long after settling in, the two are plagued by strange noises and unsettling visions and apparitions. As the paranormal activity escalates, the couple fears that an evil spirit has followed them — a reminder of the brutal past that they may never be able to escape as they try to navigate life in a country that doesn’t care about them.
‘His House’: They Give You a Chance Here
A common question asked in haunted-house stories is “Why don’t they just leave?”. What this movie posits is that for refugees like Bol and Rial, that’s simply not an option. Having escaped the war-torn conditions that have killed their families and friends, to risk endangering their status would mean being sent back, which would be the death of them. So they endure and defy the evil spirits, as well as put up with the occasional hostility and xenophobia in their new home country. It’s a genuinely compelling concept: the immigrant experience as the ultimate horror story. And it’s one that Weekes and co-writers Felicity Evans and Toby Venables explore to great effect. The horror story feeds into the social and character explorations, and vice versa. And at a brisk 93 minutes, the story moves at a solid and efficient pace.
Whether it’s the grimy English neighborhood where Bol and Rial are relocated, or the moments of chaos in Sudan as well as some otherworldly visuals, Weekes does a very good job of conveying a sense of place and building atmosphere. This extends to the house with its decaying and peeling walls, broken doors, faulty electricity, and bugs; it feels like an appropriately grimy place. And he’s aided by cinematographer Jo Willems who captures some very haunting images, especially in moments when characters are lit by firelight. As to the question of “is it scary?”, it accomplishes that as well. While the film does rely on the traditional jump scares, they—as well as the numerous haunting scenes—are executed with just the right amount of intensity and build-up, along with some effective sound design; one sequence, in particular, offers a pretty nasty spin on the “monsters disappear when the lights are on” scenario. Overall, Weekes displays a great deal of confidence in his directing.
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The performances by both Dirisu and Mosaku are excellent. In the early scenes, they have believable chemistry as a married couple, bound by shared grief over what they’ve lost. As the hauntings escalate and their relationship frays, Mosaku displays a steely strength of someone who knows the realities of her situation, while still showing moments of vulnerability. And on the opposite end, Dirisu is especially intense as someone barely keeping it together due to all the stress of trying to be “one of the good ones”.
Your Ghosts Follow You
As scary as the movie is, it’s especially potent in tackling the immigrant experience, especially for people of color.
To choose to start again in a new country is not something immigrants and refugees take lightly. We’re talking about having to leave behind everything you know, including your family and friends; having to learn a new language; adapting to your new home country’s culture and way of life, and possibly having to forsake your own culture for the sake of better fitting into your new surroundings. And unless you’re exceptional, you might never fully earn your place. And there will always be people who refuse to give you a chance, not being able to look past your skin color, ethnicity, or religion. The point is, a lot is asked of us.
How Bol and Rial react to their new lives speak volumes. No matter how the spirits terrorize him, Bol is defiant. In working on the house, he’s determined to make it his own and fit in: whether it’s joining in a soccer chant, or shopping for clothes based on an ad with white models. It’s why he doesn’t notice the security guard eyeing him as he shops; or how he puts up with Mark’s microaggressions and veiled accusations of ungratefulness. By contrast, Rial is more subdued, as if she knows the score. One particularly tense and heartbreaking scene, excellently directed by Weekes, has Rial navigating the maze-like neighborhood to see a doctor. She finds a group of Black teens, thinking that she’s found kindred spirits, only for the youths to cruelly mock her, with one even telling her to “Go back to Africa”. As Rial later tells the doctor, she’s survived by belonging nowhere. She’s resigned to the fact that she and her husband can never really fully belong.
But there’s also an emotional core at play. The spirits Bol and Rial encounter serve as reminders of the death-filled past they left behind that have also shaped who they’ve become: of others killed in either Sudan or during the journey to a new world. At one point Rial remarks that she feels like she’s stolen someone else’s life, hinting at feelings of unworthiness. Without saying too much, a shocking third-act twist forces us to consider the couple’s actions in a new light, building on the themes of guilt and confronting one’s sins, and the lengths people will go to survive.
Looking back, this film would make a good double bill with The Babadook insofar as the spirits serving as metaphors. In the case of this film, it works on two levels. On one, they represent the couple’s shared trauma and guilt over what they’ve seen and endured back home. On another level, they could serve as reminders of their heritage. To deny the past—and by extension, one’s own culture—might do more harm than good. It’s understandable that immigrants would want to fit in, but at the same time, we shouldn’t forget where we came from.
Equal parts disturbing and heartbreaking, His House is a very potent and engaging take on the haunted house genre. It’s very well made, with terrific lead performances and strong social commentary and emotional depth. It also signals Weekes as a talent worth keeping an eye on.
His House is currently on Netflix.
By Mario Yuwono
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