{Movie Review} ‘His House’ The Ghosts of Refugees

[Contains Mild Spoilers]

Haunted-house movies are difficult to get right. There’s a delicate balance to be struck – on one hand, the haunting has to be terrifying as a visual phenomenon, but at the same time, it also needs to resonate with fears in the viewer’s psyche that go beyond mere physical threats. For every Crimson Peak or The Shining, there’s a dozen attempts that simply fall flat. But in Remi WeekesHis House, the terror couldn’t be more perfectly attuned.

Weekes is a relatively new director, making his feature debut after receiving critical acclaim for his 2016 short Tickle Monster. In His House, he tells the story of Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), a South Sudanese refugee couple, as they move into an house designated for asylum seekers in the shabbier end of London. As they attempt to build a new life, the pair face threats from both the ghosts in the walls, and the prejudice of their new hosts.

His House is an unapologetically political film; in an era where the UK government openly considers using wave machines to capsize immigrant boats approaching the coast, it could hardly be anything else. By centering Bol and Rial – who are the only characters onscreen for great swathes of the film’s runtime – Weekes forces the viewer to see through a refugee’s eyes, and empathize with their fear as it continues to build. It’s a bold choice, since Dirisu and Mosaku are virtually unknown as actors in the UK, but it pays off, with Mosaku’s solo scenes being particularly effective.

Courtesy of Netflix

Weekes also puts a lot of thought into his visuals. Like Kubrick before him, nothing appears onscreen by accident, from characters’ tattoos to the mise-en-scène of individual rooms. His sets are imbued with an oppressive dinginess, reflecting how little care the immigration authority has given to the couple – it’s a universe of bare walls, scattered garbage, and harsh incandescent light. By contrast, the film’s nightmare sequences are luridly colored and almost psychedelic; when Bol transitions smoothly from his kitchen to the blood-red skies of an ocean crossing, or finds himself sprouting multiple arms, the viewer is left reeling with him.

The film’s special effects are also exquisite, blending a touch of CGI with largely practical ghosts and apparitions. In one memorable scene, Bol is stalked through his kitchen by a waterlogged corpse, which is only sometimes visible; in the finale, the apeth or ‘Beast’ that whispers from the walls is truly distressing to look at. On a modest BBC Films budget, His House presents a masterclass in doing a lot with a little.

The Crown’s Matt Smith also makes an appearance as the building’s caretaker, and while he’s kept to the sidelines, his performance is chilling. Nonchalantly reminding Bol to be “one of the good ones,” he embodies the real-life horrors of modern racism, as a man who doesn’t think he’s a racist, but harms simply through neglect rather than active malice. Here, the banality of evil is alive and well.

Much of today’s more “conscious” or “artful” horror leans too heavily on themes and metaphor, and fails to deliver real scares. His House avoids this trap, presenting the best of both worlds – the film is interested both in the complex evils of modern society, and in gross monsters. For all the darkness that its characters undergo, it ends with a surprising amount of hope. Something that’s desperately needed as 2020 draws to a close. For all these reasons, it’s among the strongest offerings of the year.

His House is available now on Netflix.

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