By Peg Aloi
This is not your typical horror film; it thoughtfully explores how houses and people can both be haunted.
His House, directed by Remi Weekes. Streaming on Netflix.
This confident and artful debut from filmmaker Remi Weekes is a moving and often harrowing portrait of an immigrant couple. The story is from Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, who also co-wrote 2020’s Percival. Actors Sope Dirisu (His Dark Materials and Gangs of London) and Wunmi Mosaku (who gave a knockout performance as Ruby in Lovecraft Country) play Bol and Rial Majur, a young couple who escape atrocities in their native Sudan for a new life in London. As the film begins, they have been waiting in detention for some weeks as asylum-seekers. They assume it will be a long time before they will be allowed to assimilate.
But a living space opens up for them: a semi-detached house in a nondescript working class neighborhood in what looks like East London. They’re overcome with gratitude and anxiety during their hearing when they’re told they’re not allowed to work, but will receive a stipend. They can barely take in the long list of rules read off by the social worker who gives them the keys to their new home. No pets, no candles, no structural changes to the home. The social worker (Matt Smith, who plays young Prince Philip in The Crown) remarks that this house is bigger than his own. There is a neighbor who looks silently on through her window, and some school children who play in the area. The neighborhood is quiet, the house is large, it seems a perfect place to begin a new life.
Bol and Rial soon begin to feel overwhelmed. The house is solid, but the yard is full of trash and discarded furniture. The pair slowly begin to settle in, but both of them are troubled by vivid waking dreams and flashbacks of the horrors they witnessed in their homeland. In particular, they feel guilt about the fate of a young girl who was traveling with them; they kidnapped her so they could escape on a bus intended only for families. This crime pales next the terrifying violence erupting around them: jeeps carrying mercenaries with guns and machetes are fast approaching in the distance. The girl did not survive the horrific journey by boat. Their new home provides little solace for this traumatic outcome.
Bol tries to do minor repairs in the home, but his work is stymied by constant hallucinations. Holes seem to open up in the walls and hands reach through. Figures and faces lurk in the shadows. Both Bol and Rial imagine scenes of terror and death. Bol ends up hacking holes in the walls to try to catch and remove the ghosts. One haunting image that persists is a malevolent witch, known as “apeth,” a “night witch” from Sudanese folklore. These scenes are portrayed with convincingly realistic effects; the physicality of the violence suggests that these waking nightmares feel horrifyingly real to the couple. The house itself is a bedeviling paradox for people who have not had a peaceful home for years: both nondescript and an intimate chamber of psychological torture. Bol and Rial are convinced a terrifying entity has followed them from Africa, and in a way, it has; whether one calls it a ghost, a witch, or the demons unleashed by trauma.
There are more mundane horrors as well. The social workers are indifferent to the emotional difficulties suffered by these asylum-seekers. When Bol suggests he wants to move because there are “problems” with the house, he is again reminded by office workers, with a tinge of resentment, that his house is bigger than the ones they live in. The political point is clear: Bol and Rial should be grateful for what they’re getting. They should not be so ungrateful as to ask the government for help. (This is no doubt meant as a sardonic commentary on London’s much criticized reception and treatment of refugee populations.) While some locals are friendly enough (Bol receives a box of food at a pub and sings with the locals as they watch sports on TV), they also experience blatant bigotry. Trying to locate a doctor’s office, Rial approaches three teenage boys for help; though her English is perfect, they mock her accent, tell her to “go back to Africa”, and make racist taunts. This scene is all the more disturbing because the three British teenagers are themselves Black; the intersections of colonialism and racism are complex and pervasive in this city of immigrants. At the physician’s office, Rial is examined by a white woman who admires her ritual scars. Rial calmly tells her she bears marks from two warring tribes. A she quietly describes the suffering she endured, the doctor’s smile stiffens.
There is no happy ending or easy answer to Bol and Rial’s quest for healing and acceptance. The film’s hybrid nature — horror and realism — is skillfully maneuvered by the powerful but understated performances of its two leads. The cinematography by Jo Willems (Hard Candy, and two of the Hunger Games films) is perfectly calibrated to portray the dilapidated neighborhood by day and the house’s fantastically frightening interior by night. Pictorially, His House is a tour de force, combining very different visual tones seamlessly. This is not your typical horror film; it thoughtfully explores how houses and people can both be haunted. Here, the haunted house is a kaleidoscopic space, shifting from moment to moment, now a sanctuary, now a prison, inhabited by the ghosts of a mind in torment, arising from a storied landscape steeped in a history of imperial brutality.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.