Refugees Flee Terror Only to Find New Horrors in Memorable ‘His House’
Horror at its best is never about the monsters. The things that go bump in the night are more striking when they serve as mirror reflections of very real, relatable fears. Netflix’s “His House” is a haunted house movie and a parable about the immigrant experience. Director Remi Weekes actually has ideas to express about leaving your home and attempting to settle somewhere else, and he masterfully delivers these musings with terrifying atmosphere.
Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are strangers in a strange land. They are part of a South Sudanese refugee wave that has traversed dangerous seas to make it to England. Along the way they tragically lost their daughter to the elements. Now with government help they are being settled into a home in a rundown neighborhood. At first Bol and Rial are impressed at the deal they get. It’s a two-floor spot just for them. Their case handler, Mark (Matt Smith of “The Crown”), can hardly believe it even if there is a strange smell all over the place. Bol is eager to fit into the local British culture, which obviously sees them as alien. He even tries to sing along with the football anthems of the local pub. Rial is more cautious. Then the noises begin. Distant voices, strange screams and taps begin to grab the couple’s attention. Holes begin appearing in the walls hiding unnerving secrets. Rial begins to feel that a powerful entity has followed them, demanding retribution for choices they made when fleeing their homeland.
“His House” marks Weekes’ feature film debut after having made a few short films and directed some television. A director from the U.K., the film was made in collaboration with the BBC, Weekes also adds to a recent crop of international movies which explore horror with a social or historical lens. These are films where the genre is used to explore wider themes American movies never touch. Another great companion to this title is “Under the Shadow,” also available on Netflix, about a haunted apartment during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The horror flows out of very real and intense realities. Weekes never uses the theme of refugees as a convenient plot device because the horror becomes a potent allegory for what his characters are living. Bol and Rial have moved to the U.K. to flee bloody conflict in their country, but changing homes comes with its own threats. Locals look at them condescendingly, even a church staffer guiding Bol to some aid handouts practically barks at him from the building’s entrance. Bol used to work at a bank in South Sudan, now he lives in a stripped home under cold skies. Local Black kids mock Rial’s accent and emphasize that this is English territory. Somehow nationalism becomes as intimidating as the choppy waters the couple had to navigate on a packed raft.
Weekes never goes for the romanticized immigrant story in “His House.” What is so brilliant is how he combines an achingly human tale with the more familiar trappings of a scary movie. Cinematographer Jo Willems films the interiors of Bol and Rial’s home with gothic light and shadows, making the environment eerie while also expressing the fear of living in a place you don’t know so well. If Bol is desperate to fit in, Rial longs for home and reminds us that a misconception about immigrants is that people don’t simply leave their homelands on a whim. And when some do decide to leave they make drastic or unsavory choices demanded by circumstance. Bol and Rial carry a great guilt on their shoulders over the death of their daughter, and without ghosts it already feels like a curse. This is key to understand how the movie then becomes an effective and brutally intense horror piece.
Weekes provides some great jump scares, but never cheap ones. For a feature debut he reveals an impressive control of mood, with moments even Stephen King would jolt at. Weekes allows scenes to build as Bol peers into the holes that begin appearing on his walls or when late at night something seems to be approaching up the stairs. Disfigured apparitions will creep into the lens and others jump at Bol and Rial. But their design is connected to the idea of the countless ghosts left out at sea in the waves of refugees seeking a home away from war and unrest. In a powerful hallucination Bol stands in the middle of a vast ocean as the corpses of drowned migrants rise, scarred and damaged.
As the couple comes closer to finding answers to the specters haunting them, the script becomes a powerful fantasy about how we may run but the past has a way of following us anywhere. Bol and Rial are trapped between otherworldly forces demanding retribution and government officials looking for any excuse to take away their home. Weekes finds a unique balance between this material and some finely performed, intimate scenes of dialogue between Bol and Rial, where they talk like a real couple and not clichés.
For the diehard horror fan “His House” is a smart, effective offering with spooks worthy of “The Babadook.” Yet even the general movie gazer should see it. It goes beyond its genre and becomes a parable about fleeing real terror only to find threats waiting for you somewhere else. The scares are conjured by the monstrosity of being marooned in a hostile world.
“His House” begins streaming Oct. 30 on Netflix.