Director: Remi Weekes
Writer: Remi Weekes
Cast: Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku
Cinematographer: Jo Willems
Editor: Julia Bloch
Streaming on: Netflix
The lives of Sudanese couple Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) Majur are filled with terrors, and that’s before the ghosts show up. Effective vignettes trace their harrowing escape from the war-torn country, as they’re bundled into a truck under the scorching sun, and then have to brave the choppy sea in a boat. The couple makes it, their young daughter doesn’t. Upon their arrival on British shores, fear not only pervades their sleep, which is interrupted by nightmares, but also their waking moments spent at a detention centre, where the threat of deportation looms large.
Instead, a panel grants them bail as asylum seekers, conditional upon their acceptance of government housing, and the promise that they won’t seek out employment, instead getting a meagre handout. It’s an affecting scene, with Bol’s barely-contained relief and joy contrasted against the boredom of the stone-faced officials.
The house is dilapidated, the electricity cuts out and cockroaches swarm the floors, but Bol and Rial know they’ve fled from worse. They’re determined to make the best of this. “We will be new here,” he says. At night, the house screams. Or are screams echoing from the inside of Bol’s head? He sees apparitions of his daughter, but are they just manifestations of survivor’s guilt? As Mike Flanagan’s excellent The Haunting Of Bly Manor pointed out, the people who live in haunted houses are often haunted themselves, and His House does a fine job of questioning which type of horror is easier to live with.
Director Remi Weekes executes Bol’s nighttime excursions with impeccable timing. Aided by the natural eeriness that the night’s shadows evoke, he builds suspense in increments that coalesce into frightening jumpscares. To communicate how unfamiliar another country might feel to immigrants, his geographical layout of the outside world is made up of labyrinths that trap and suffocate Rial even in the daytime, components that feel plucked from a dream gone wrong. This blend of real and imagined horrors turns His House into a terse, scary watch that also doubles up as a moving commentary on the refugee experience.
The tenderness of Bol and Rial’s relationship is a wonderful change of pace from the tense narrative. The decision to not translate some of the couple’s exchanges in Dinka, their native language, is a nice touch, and reads like the filmmaker affording them some measure of privacy in a society determined to put them under a microscope. The hostility of the Majurs’ home follows them outside, where white neighbours treat them with disdain and store employees follow them around assuming they will shoplift. Even the film’s title is a nod to their place in the margins. They’re conscious of living in a borrowed house, that despite their best efforts, doesn’t feel like home.
To rid himself of the ghosts that seemingly live inside his walls, Bol must conquer his inner demons first. His emotional landscape is represented onscreen as the scene of his daughter’s death, both equally turbulent. The film, which so far derived its strength from the ambiguity of the situation, loses some of its potency by visually representing the creature haunting him, the metaphor more meaningful than the imagery that conveys it. Still, by the end, the heartfelt combination of ancient folklore with the current refugee crisis makes His House a worthy addition to the haunted house canon.