Film Review – His House
His House (2020) operates on multiple levels. It’s a spooky haunted house story, an emotionally powerful character study, and a social statement on the trials and tribulations of immigration. The fact that it hits on all of these beats effectively is a testament to director Remi Weekes (making his feature length debut), the writing team (Weekes, Felicity Evans, Toby Venables), the acting, and the production crew behind the camera. I had no idea what I was in for walking into this, and right from the beginning I was hooked. This was terrifying, heartbreaking, and utterly captivating – it’s one of the best movies of the year.
The immigration experience is one of hope, fear, and constant uncertainty. People travel to a different place looking for a better life but are met with legal and cultural obstacles – one of which is the real possibility of being deported back to their native country. They have to adapt to a foreign society while still maintaining a sense of identity. That is the challenge for married couple Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku). The two are refugees from war-torn southern Sudan who have made their way to an unnamed English town. However, their journey is not without its share of misfortune, as a terrible tragedy befell them on the boat ride to Great Britain.
This trauma lingers in both Bol and Rial, and each of them deal with it as best as they can. They do this while navigating the British immigration system. They are placed in an extended “probation” period and are put in a rundown tenement home, filled with chipped paint, cracked walls, clutter, and bugs. Their case manager (Matt Smith) snarkily remarks that it’s bigger than his home – a clear microaggression. As the case manager points out, Bol and Rial have to be “one of the good ones,” but their living situation goes south almost immediately. Not only do they have to live in a world they don’t understand, along with the racism that comes with it (both subtle and overt), they also discover that their home is haunted. Apparently, demons have followed them from Sudan and are now living within the walls.
In terms of horror, His House is incredibly unnerving. Weekes and his team solve the riddle with the “haunted house” question (Why don’t they just leave?) by tying the supernatural elements directly to Bol and Rial. There’s also the added restriction of being on probation – any effort to change their living conditions would result in the two being deported. The narrative has jump scares and “gotcha!” moments, but the production design and art direction incorporate them cleverly. They make the most of the small space, utilizing the shadows and light to hide the ghouls in unsuspecting areas. In one of the more tense-filled sequences, Bol finds himself surrounded by demons who only reveal themselves when a light switch is turned on. We also get some nice use out of the deteriorating walls, where the ghosts look in through open holes on our protagonists like peeping toms hunting down their prey.
Like many other great horror films, the terror stands as an allegory for human themes. The early tragedy that struck Bol and Rial has remained with them. They carry the burden and guilt of what happened, questioning whether or not they even deserve to be in the position they are in. A part of them wants to deny the past and move on, while the other side can’t help but face the reality of their choices. The demons that haunt them are representative of the memories they carry – of the homeland and people they left perhaps never to see again. That’s one of things many tend to ignore – while immigrating to another country can hold opportunities for prosperity, it also requires a person to abandon everything that has made them who they are.
Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku deliver powerhouse performances. Dirisu plays Bol with inner turmoil and angst, but with a determination to achieve their goals. Bol is a constant optimist. Even when things are most dire his unbending will won’t allow them to fail, which can be both a good and bad thing. Mosaku plays Rial as a loving, caring, and strong-willed woman. She is the realist of the two and understands the magnitude of their haunting almost immediately. Where Bol’s resolve can blind him from admitting the truth, Rial embraces the reality of what’s happening and faces it head on. Dirisu and Mosaku are a pitch perfect match on screen – their chemistry carries the film.
I’ve been purposely vague about what happens in His House because the twists and turns are so rich and powerful that I wouldn’t dare give them away. This is a stunning debut for Weekes. His approach is confident, thoughtful, and empathetic. Horror is such a great genre because of how it can encompass a wide variety of stories. It’s been a long time since a movie has frightened one moment only to have me near tears in the next. As soon as I was done watching it, I wanted to watch it again.