Director: Remi Weekes Starring: Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu, Matt Smith Running Time: 93 minutes
A war-torn nation. A fleeing family. A crammed boat. A daughter in the water.
Harrowing images flash across the screen as His House begins, traumas that haunt the subjects of English director Remi Weekes’ debut feature well before any ghosts get involved. Bol Majur (Gangs of London‘s Sope Dirisu) is racked by nightmares, as he and his wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku of Lovecraft County) await asylum in a centre in England, having fled from South Sudan. The daughter of their flashbacks, Nyagak, is no longer with them. Newly distributed by Netflix, His House deals with deeply-rooted fears, the traditional ghost story used to frame a migrant experience, of what it might cost to wrench yourself free of your home, and of the things carried over even as you try to start anew.
After a year in limbo left to marinade in their loss, Bol and Rial are assigned residence in a council estate somewhere in England. Even with residency far from confirmed and sceptical eyes all over them, as they move into these new digs – rubbish piled outside the door, no electricity and bugs crawling everywhere – the couple, or certainly Bol, can’t believe their luck. He sees it as a chance to start over, and assures their case worker, (Matt Smith, heavy on the microaggressions) that they can be “the good ones”. Bol is overly eager to leave the past and his nightmares behind him. By day, he goes out and about, tries to watch football in the pub, swaps his old clothes for a an off-the-rack polo under the watchful white eyes of the family on advertisement behind him in the shops. Fitting in, as he sees it, means being safely removed from something, and somewhere else.
By night however, it’s clear that something is not right in the new house. In the dark, the pair hear thing scuttling behind the walls, which might peel away at any moment, revealing sudden and suspenseful visions. Shapes are glimpsed in the shadows, there is something lurking, frightening and awful, that we do not yet understand. Rial, much less assured of their place here, is convinced that they have been followed from Africa by a ‘night witch’, a vengeful spirit punishing them by flooding their home with ghosts. Bol is in denial, even as he’s under attack from terrifying visages of the past. Rial on the other hand, forms a different relationship with the spirit, talking to it, enthralled by its promises. And the spirit doesn’t have the nicest things to say about her husband…
The couple’s status as asylum seekers puts a well-considered spin on haunted house tropes, and the usual questions of why characters don’t just run away. Trapped in a hostile environment, there’s nowhere for them to go, and every decision carries the risk of not just angering ghosts and monsters, but a system that might bounce them at any moment. And Bol’s insistence that they are not going back is increasingly matched by Rial’s desire to return to what they left behind, impossible as that seems. The layers of tension and conflict in an otherwise straightforward story make His House an arresting watch.
Outside the scares, Weekes injects atmosphere into the characters’ day to day experiences, holding the camera as the leads strain to smile and please white characters, using simple blocking and cuts to create distance – the decision makers are sat just too far back, the lads at the pub Bol wishes to join always another shot away. In one superb sequence, a simple walk to the doctor by Rial is turned into a disorienting maze. Seemingly innocent stuff, like a kid kicking a football who she seems to see everywhere, or the repetitive geography of an estate, become sinister through Rial’s uncomfortable eyes. When the actual scares come – and Weekes and his team again deserve credit for bringing them early and often – they’re all the more tense because the characters we’re following are already on such uncertain ground.
Effective and economic use of sound design and shadows form the bulk of His House‘s most frightening moments, building up longer looks at the creepy creature designs. The story builds further from the ghost story constraints though, psychologically venturing into the minds of Bol and Rial that are revealing and harrowing. Home in Bol’s mind is murky, stylised and disorienting, but to Rial it’s clear and realistically rendered. These contrasts are all part of the intelligent storytelling that makes the film essential horror, an uncompromising balancing act between a bump-in-the-night haunted house tale and a complex exploration of grief and guilt. Wunmi Mosaku, tense and uncertain, is believably brought in by the night witch, growing into screen presence you can’t take your eyes off. Dirisu handles the tricky task of playing an affable lead who we grow increasingly doubtful of; pressured and wirey, both performers have to convey full horror movie character arcs all while their characters are laden with survivor’s guilt and PTSD, filtered character work that they carry off exceptionally.
Typical of a first feature, Weekes is bursting at the seams with ideas as the writer and director, it’s a complex work but he does his best work on screen when keeping it simple. His House passes the biggest challenge for the modern trend of highly metaphorical horrors, keeping it scary, making sure to keep it tense and immediate rather than laying on too much talking and being over-focused on the mind. With the goosebumps suitably attended to, when the story gets to its biggest reveals, they’re heart-stopping and gut wrenching. A moving and well-earned ending shows how the ghosts of the past must be reckoned with, and how they remain with you. Creepy and clever, His House comes highly recommended and a showcase for rising English talents; an evocative and empathetic depiction of refugee lives, that shows the needlessly desperate lengths some have to go through to make the ground underneath them theirs, to no longer be housed and instead make a home.(4 / 5)