In the last few years, a number of the most chilling and engrossing horror films that have been released, from Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014)to Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), share a common theme: trauma. Paranormal events, possessions, witchcraft – all of them are capable of forming the basis of a solid horror flick. However, attempting to cope with grief is a struggle every audience member can relate to, which is why so many skilled filmmakers frame their efforts in the genre around it. His House, the first feature from British director Remi Weekes’s, is another work revolved around a pair of characters trying to come to terms with a traumatic event, but what makes it stand out from other horror pieces of similar ilk is that this challenge is rooted in the context of an extremely timely issue: the refugee crisis.
The central figures in His House, a couple named Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), have arrived in the UK after escaping their home of South Sudan, which is experiencing a significant amount of civil unrest. Seeking shelter, they are relocated to a run-down council estate. The conditions in their new home are far from ideal, to say the least. What they do not yet realise is that the ramshackle state of the place is far from their gravest concern, as the psychological scars they still carry from a harrowing conclusion to their escape from South Sudan are about to manifest in disturbing ways.
A possible pitfall of a piece like His House is crumbling under the weight of trying to both appease casual viewers with the jump scares and extravagant set-pieces they expect from a film like this, while simultaneously using the context of the contemporary migrant experience to deliver a resonant commentary on the problems they face when trying to adapt to a new culture. Thankfully, Weekes proves adept at deftly balancing the two. In regards to the more surface-level thrills, the director maximises the amount of terror that can be generated from a single location, as the temporary abode Bol and Rial reside in is the centre for the film’s most suspenseful sequences. Cracks in the walls and faulty lights may seem like generic devices upon which to construct an effective scare, but the sparse use of non-diegetic music and prolonged single shots intensify these moments to the point that a viewer could not be blamed for watching events unfold through their fingers. Furthermore, Weekes plays with the audience’s expectations when it comes to the beats of these set-pieces. Just as you breathe a sigh of relief in the belief that the tension has finally been alleviated after one almighty fright, another surprise is thrown seconds later. This technique keeps viewers on edge throughout, but never does Weekes rely too heavily on these scares, always consigning them to the work’s most heightened instances of anxiety.
The British filmmaker also subverts expectations when it comes to the characterisation. The situation Bol and Rial find themselves in at the beginning is more than enough to elicit sympathy from the audience. However, it is apparent in the early stages that their relationship is not as concrete as you might think. In spite of their mutual grief, they both deal with it in a drastically different manner, and the threat they each face contrasts sharply. While Rial’s recognition of the unusual developments in their new house is exhibited through psychological torment, Bol confronts far more visceral dangers, and the reasons for this are gradually revealed over the course of the narrative. Much of the emotional baggage they carry emerges from personal guilt, adding another layer to their behaviour and the stability of their marriage.
While the ‘haunted house’ setting is the hub for the film’s most visually striking and terrifying scenes, the instances when Rial and Bol seek to venture beyond the council estate carry just as much weight, especially in regards to the theme of assimilation which dominates the piece. Rial is much more reluctant than Bol to explore their surroundings, the latter doing his utmost to blend in with the locals (joining in with a chant about Peter Crouch whilst watching a football game in a pub is one of the flick’s more humorous moments). Both of them, however, encounter both subtle and aggressive expressions of racial prejudice as they spend more time in their new community, an alternative horror to the spectral one which pervades their new home, but even more sinister. The precariousness of their position as African immigrants in contemporary society is displayed through numerous institutions, from a trio of adolescents in the council estate who subject Rial to aggressive racial abuse in response to her polite request for help, to figures of authority (a security guard loiters in the background following Bol into a clothes shop). Even the social workers who allocate the house to them consistently emphasise the “fortunate” opportunity they have been afforded and the risks of demonstrating any sort of objection. Their inability to gain work further stifles the possibility of settling in. His House may pack thrills and spills, but its real strength is shining a light on the immense pressure facing immigrants upon entering a new home, especially when compounded by having to confront a significant personal loss.
Ultimately, His House is a disquieting portrayal of domestic and more unearthly suffocation. It announces Weekes as an exciting new voice in the horror genre, and injects a new lease of life into the subgenre of haunted house movies, showcasing the capacity for poignant, thought-provoking social commentary in addition to the standard perturbation which accompanies the visit to a cursed location.
His House is currently available to stream on Netflix.