There’s just something about the horror genre that brings out some of the greatest – and often unsung – performances. In fact, horror as a whole, while being loved and lauded enough for many its movies to become cultural phenomenons (and being able to sustain an entire streaming service), still seems to be largely ignored when it comes to real awards recognition. For all the praise it receives, there still remains a kind of stigma, as if far too many people still refuse to take the genre seriously.
But we are now in an age of what many call “elevated horror”, an already overused term that, when put plainly, basically means that we’ve been getting a ton of not just really damn good, but really damn smart films that also manage to scare the hell out of us. From the terrifying physical presence of grief and depression in The Babadook, to the sexual liberation of The VVitch, to whatever the hell you think Midsommar is about, the horror genre has transcended its own limits these past few years to become the most exciting and captivating part of the current movie scene. His House, an astounding debut feature from British filmmaker Remi Weekes, earns its place among the most iconic titles in the genre, and throws its hat into the ring for the best scary movie of the year.
Sope Disiru and Wunmi Mosaku deliver two staggeringly affecting performances as married couple Bol (Disiru) and Rial (Mosaku). Opening with a series of sharp, urgent cuts, His House tells the tale of these two Sudanese immigrants as they attempt to flee their war-torn country. They travel by foot across the desert, are crammed into overcrowded buses, and squeeze into tiny boats to sail across the sea in the dead of night. Not everyone survives the perilous journey, and this tragically includes Bol and Rial’s young daugher, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba), who is lost to the dark, crashing waves when their boat overturns. It’s a recurring nightmare for Bol, who awakes startled in a gloomy detention center somewhere in the UK, where the couple have been for an unknown amount of time.
The indifferent employees here sort through their paperwork – one tells his coworker how they lost their daughter as if the couple aren’t right there in front of them, while another never even bothers to look up from his phone – before relaying some good news: They will be allowed to remain in the country as asylum seekers, and will even be granted their own private residence. “It’s a palace” is how their burnt out caseworker, Mark (Matt Smith) describes it, and as their new life in a new place begins, Bol and Rial – tightly holding each other’s hand – still have the strength of the bond between them.
Of course, that palace is really nothing more than a glorified apartment. It’s significantly dilapidated, the wallpaper is peeling, bugs scurry throughout the kitchen, and trashed furniture sits just outside the front door, but the pair are still determined to make it a home. There’s a desperate desire to be born again and leave their tragic past behind, and Bol in particular is eager to assimilate as best he can. But this new environment is hostile in its own ways. Weekes shows the immigrant/refugee experience in all of its difficulty – from microaggressions like Bol being followed by security when he journeys to the mall for new clothes, to outright racism as a simple walk to the local doctor for Rial becomes a disorienting and torturous experience when her accent is mocked and she’s told to “Go back to Africa.”
At a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric and hate crimes are on the rise, and needing to hear the stories of its victims are more vital than ever, His House feels especially timely and poignant. The strain that their fragile status as refugees puts on them – with the looming threat of having their sacrifices to get this far all be for naught – causes the couple’s relationship to fray at its edges. Bol’s desire to toss aside the past and be “one of the good ones” comes into conflict with Rial’s need to hang onto their Sudanese customs and the memory of their daughter. The family drama and sociopolitical themes would normally be enough for a film, but Weekes then inserts one more turn of the screw to really spice things up: supernatural horror.
His House is a classic haunted house tale in disguise. Things go bump in the night as Bol attempts to rest, disembodied voices whisper through the walls, and the couple is assailed by zombified versions of their fellow migrants that weren’t so lucky. These manifestations of survivor’s guilt and trauma are the true threat for Bol and Rial. When coupled with their opposing views on cultural assimilation and their inability to come to terms with what they’ve gone through, it’s a recipe for terrible and violent disaster.
Weekes combines creeping dread (things quite literally creep by in the background of shots) with standard jump scares, but still manages to make those moments rather effective as opposed to being predictable or lazy. A sickly orange glow illuminates the pale green wallpaper at night, surreal, dreamlike sequences blur the line between nightmares and memories, and classic horror tropes coalesce with Sudanese folklore (namely, Azande witchcraft) to create a wholly unique – and genuinely frightening – cinematic experience.
There are times when His House can feel a bit slow, but the film keeps things at a tight 93 minutes in an attempt to keep up the pace and not overburden itself with any sort of subplots. The more personal story of guilt and trauma overrides the broader social themes that Weeke’s screenplay provides – much to the film’s benefit – but the two are still seamlessly meshed together to create a humanizing portrait of refugees blended with an old-fashioned haunted house tale. I can’t say that I know of any other movie like it. It’s elevated horror at its finest; well-written, superbly directed and acted, and most of all, pretty damn scary.