Seamlessly meshing classic scary movie tropes with the more profound horror of real-world conflict zones, His House represents a harrowing but bracingly creative feature debut for British writer-director Remi Weekes. Acquired by Netflix upon its Sundance debut, this timely story of a married couple from South Sudan (played affectingly by Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu) coping with grief after resettling as asylum seekers in the United Kingdom could and deservedly should reach a reasonably wide audience if pushed correctly by the platform.
Comparisons are likely to be made to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us because of the way the film sieves issues of race and cultural displacement through the mesh of genre. But while the analogy is understandable, His House has its own unique valence, one specific to the British and African settings where its story unfolds. Where Peele’s films tie their horrors to the original sin of slavery, racism and class in America, Weekes’ script, based on a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, engages more with the legacies of tribalism, survivors’ guilt, and the psychological scars wrought by genocidal atrocities. Although, of course, racism and postcolonialism are there in the mix too. But these thematic undertones aside, the movie is also a very effective generator of jump scares and nightmarish imagery, much of it achieved with relatively lo-fi special effects, umbral lighting and intensely committed performances from the leads.
Former bank employee Bol (Dirisu, best known for his work onstage and on the AMC series Humans) and his wife, Rial (Mosaku, of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), survive a long trek through the Sudanese desert on crowded buses, ride pickup trucks through a war zone, and then take a terrifying journey on storm-tossed seas in a flimsy boat packed with refugees, seemingly only to lose their daughter, a child of 10 or so, somewhere along the way. Exactly what happened is revealed only in a slow drip of detail that runs through the length of the drama.
In a grotty British detention center where bored officials barely look up from their cellphones while Bol and Rial’s case is heard, it’s decided that the couple are to be granted temporary permission to stay in the U.K. until their asylum is granted. They must not take any paid employment, and survive only on their meager benefits from the state. A social worker (Matt Smith, of Doctor Who and The Crown) shows the desperately grateful pair to their new home, an extremely dilapidated, if spacious, apartment in a bleak housing estate on the edge of London. It’s a place where every gaggle of white teenagers looks like a menacing gang and sour-faced neighbors, clearly pro-Brexit voters, peer suspiciously out their windows at Bol and Rial, through dirty net curtains.
Despite the unwelcoming environment, the couple cheerfully attempt to fit in and fix up their accommodations. (With their first step over the threshold, the front door comes off its hinges.) But terrible dreams disturb their sleep, and things go bump in the night when they’re awake. Even in daytime, a trip to the doctor’s office for Rial seems to turn into a maze of alleys that keep taking her back to the same sinister child kicking a ball against a wall. Too frightened to talk to the white people, she approaches a trio of black youths for guidance, but even they mock her accent and intentionally point her in the wrong direction, a scene that slyly upends viewer expectations.
As the night terrors get more overt, and ghosts literally start to come out of the drywall, the couple come to believe they’re being haunted by a witch who has followed them from the old country, intent on punishing them for taking something that’s not theirs, like in a folk tale from back home. Making matters even worse, Bol is too frightened to reveal his suspicions of the supernatural origin of their problem to the social worker. In a marvelously performed scene, all barely repressed emotions and nuance, he explains instead that they have a problem with rats and need to be housed somewhere else, only to be greeted with disdain by the officials, who think that he and his wife are ungrateful and being choosy about what they’ve been given for free.
Slipping seamlessly between the Sudanese language Dinka and English, Mosaku and Dirisu are both outstanding here as seemingly stoic victims of history who nevertheless have dark secrets of their own. Indeed, as with Rial’s encounter with the kids in the street, the film trips up viewer expectations by showing that the couple are not saintly martyrs, even if their suffering and hardship are all too real. Ultimately, guilt is shown to be as powerful a generator of pain as victimization. Without spoiling anything, the ending recalls the conclusion of The Babadook (another very smart indie horror film made with old-school scare techniques) with a message about reconciling with your own monsters. Similarly, the deployment of far more jump scares than one would expect in fast succession is also deeply unsettling, creating zigs where experienced genre buffs would expect a zag.
Cinematographer Jo Willems coordinates tightly with production designer Jacqueline Abrahams to emphasize a palette of chilly blues and nacreous teals in the U.K. scenes that contrast with the warmer earth tones in the Africa-set flashbacks. Careful lighting ensures that the leads’ dark-skinned features are illuminated just enough without compromising the need for dimness in the night scenes. Altogether, it’s work that looks effortlessly made thanks to real technical expertise.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production companies: BBC Films, New Regency Pictures, Starchild Pictures, Vertigo Entertainment
Cast: Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu, Matt Smith
Director: Remi Weekes
Screenwriters: Remi Weekes
Based on a story by Felicity Evans, Toby Venables
Producers: Ed King, Martin Gentles, Roy Lee, Aidan Elliott, Arnon Milchan
Executive producers: Yariv Milchan, Michael Schaefer, Natalie Lehmann, Mark Huffam, Steven Schneider, Stuart Manashil
Director of photography: Jo Willems
Editor: Julia Bloch
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Costume designer: Holly Rebecca
Casting: Salah Benchegra, Carmen Cuba
In Dinka and English