Director & screenplay: Remi Weekes, 2020, UK
Story: Felicity Evans & Toby Venables
‘His House’s distinction is in using the genre to give voice to the experience of those that are not usually heard, just derided, mistrusted and used as scapegoats. This has always been part of the genre, speaking for the outsiders, but this particularly socially-aware horror of course follows a welcome recent trend invested in the experiences of the Black community that seemingly follows the roads kicked open by Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’. Saw an IMDB comment saying that the scares are the greatest thing about horror films, but that surely does the typical, tired thing of reducing the genre to its most superficial level: the social commentary and reflection the genre offers is so often overlooked or just ignored. Or the troubling emotional truths of ‘The Babadook’ or ‘The Relic’ (2020) are the kind evoked in a way only horror can provide. If jump-scares are all you came for, you’re missing out.
‘His House’ is the tale of a refugee couple escaping horrific circumstances and trying for asylum in England. When they reach those stark, unwelcoming shores, they are given a list of stringent rules that do not seem a life at all (no work; no friends; but you must prove you are assimilating) and a house – a big house, as everyone reminds them, seemingly with surprise and resentment as if they are undeserving. Microaggressions all present and active. And of course, it’s haunted but it’s far from the glamour of delipidated Gothic. Mostly cleaned out and barely furnished, it still has the feeling of a potential squat, situated in a bland, unappealing English street. Where they are is never specified, all to increase the feeling of being unmoored and kept in the dark. As CH Newell notes:
“What’s unique is how Weekes uses the Gothic to explore contemporary immigration issues, which makes for a memorable story, and shows how rich the horror genre can be when we make sure stories from all cultures make it to the screen.”
It’s a depressing backdrop more at home in a social-realist drama. Bol (Sope Dirisu) wants to pin everything on their new home, to assimilate, to sing stupid football songs in the pub, to eat with cutlery, to forget the past. Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) isn’t able to do that. One of the most memorable moments is when she goes out, gets lost and sees some black kids, assumes they will be allies, only to learn it’s very different here. And then the alleyways of the estate turn into a homage to the maze of ‘The Shining’ (Weeke’s deliberate and effective homage). It’s in a moment like this where the melding of kitchen sink drama and horror tropes blend most effortlessly. Nothing is truly welcoming.
This is where casting Matt Smith as their case worker is a true asset: Smith has an aura that you can’t quite pin down; friendly and on-your-side one moment, but somewhat threatening and broken the next. This is why he made such an effective ‘Dr Who’: there’s something about him you can’t quite pin down. He has a way of making prosaic lines seem threatening.
Dirisu is all energetic but desperate hope, his vulnerability and denial almost embarrassingly open. Warm but obviously troubled. Mosaku, by contrast, is all wisdom and acceptance, without being patronising. Integrity and worry. They provide a mesmerising performance chamber piece without overbearing the tone (this could easily convert to a play).
Everything is uncertain, but when the supernatural pays a visit to make sure their past can’t be dismissed, she especially knows exactly what it is. It is an apeth, a Sudese witch of guilt and revenge following from their homeland to terrorise them. It is not what haunts them that proves the mystery – which is typical of haunted houses – but the secret of how to traverse assimilation (what is it, even?). As noted, the film is very good on the microaggressions the Black community experience, of creating a system an atmosphere where the needy are kept pleading and in their place, where they can't win.
The film deftly maintains its balance of social issues, speaking to the humanity of refugees against a Hostile Environment, as it delves into its haunted house tropes. Like films such as ‘The Babadook’ , ‘Under the Shadow’ or ‘Get Out’, it wears its analogy on the surface, and it guides and permeates everything; rooted in the zeitgeist but never forgoing its genre thrills. The social-realism may date a little given time, but its horror movie identity won’t.
Oh, ‘His House’ is likely to spook and scare you at times with its holes in the walls and open doorways. The first appearance made me jump; a central set-piece where the ghosts just seem to pile on is a highlight. And just when peaking with dramatic conflict, the film segues into revelations of the past, into steps-into-flashbacks; the kind that often feel a lazy means of exposition in many genre films but is smooth and fascinating here. For rather than just explaining the mystery, the flashback complicates this story further, opening up more themes, muddying waters. It feels narratively straightforward and superficially familiar, but it’s always introducing new nuances and this makes ‘His House’ increasingly dense and always intriguing. Even when Rial calls the Englishmen officials bored, it provides an alternate perspective on the other characters that assume their positions of superiority.
And then, as you think you may have it figured, it turns into a monster movie of sorts. Within its framework, ‘His House’ never rests. Its deftness of genre tropes and social issues only become fully apparent upon reflection. If perhaps the final declarations feel a little too on-the-nose, they are fully earned and feel true to the characters. It is the mystery of people and community that leads here rather than the supernatural, but it doesn’t skimp on the spooks either.