Amid a global pandemic, no genre has survived – nay, thrived – like horror has. The misfit of the film world has always existed in the shadows, of course, covertly shared through VHS tapes and later watched on VOD. It’s rare that horror is afforded the respect it deserves with a big cinema release, particularly the weirder, smaller movies. Consider Adam Green’s infamous issues with Hatchet 2, for example, and it becomes clear why plenty of indie filmmakers don’t even bother trying to get their work into theaters anymore. This has been a great year for horror even without the means to watch it on the big screen, but annoyingly lost among the shuffle is His House, one of the scariest and most remarkable movies released in 2020.
Incredibly, His House is the feature debut of Brit filmmaker Remi Weekes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Felicity Evans and Tony Venables. An incendiary, blisteringly honest, and toe-curling blend of real-world drama and cleverly integrated moments of all-out terror, it’s not just one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory but easily a contender for the scariest film of the year. Available to watch on Netflix now, His House may have passed you by in the jostle for attention from the more high-profile likes of Fincher’s Mank, or even Host, which made a major splash over on Shudder when it dropped earlier this year (and rightly so).
The story focuses on married immigrant couple Bol (Gangs of London breakout Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku, from the recent Lovecraft Country), who have fled war-torn South Sudan for a better life in England. Upon arrival, they realize that a dilapidated house in an overlooked council estate is the best they can hope for, with well-meaning social worker Mark (Doctor Who star Matt Smith) encouraging them to do their best to blend in and not upset the status quo. Bol is happy to do so, taking care of odd jobs around the house, heading down to the barber for a new cut and even singing along with the locals in the pub. But Rial finds it harder to adapt, fearing the loss of their culture.
Over several nights in their new home, Bol experiences some unexplained incidents with what appears to be a vengeful spirit. Chalking it up to new house jitters, he continues to repair the various holes in the wall only for Rial to confront him and confirm that they are, in fact, being haunted. It turns out the couple lost their young daughter during the perilous journey over, and this presence wants to make them pay for their transgressions. At first, Bol dismisses his wife’s claims but soon the spirit makes it impossible for him to ignore them. All the while, the couple has to pretend everything is normal so they don’t get sent back, adding further stress to their living situation, while racism and ignorance linger on the periphery.
His House is a genuinely terrifying movie that eloquently builds up the sense that something is slightly off in this house with several clever tricks that will be familiar to lifelong horror fanatics. However, Weekes consistently plays with our expectations, timing jump scares to the exact moment we have started to feel safe again and placing startling images in corners of the frame where we have long trained our eyes not to bother looking. He shows an incredible grasp of the trappings of the genre by subverting them on essentially every level. This is a profoundly scary film, and its fright potential is generated by the risks Weekes takes by refusing to follow the established rules.
More to the point, his debut could easily exist simply as a drama about asylum seekers struggling to find their place in an uncaring system. The many hoops Bol and Rial have to jump through just to live in their shit-heap house are frustrating, but what’s worse is how eager he is to please their new countrymen by hiding just how hard it is for them (“We’re good people,” he insists sadly in one of the movie’s most heart-breaking moments). Their relationship is tested by each side’s resistance to seeing the other’s perspective, with much of the suspense derived not from the malevolent presence but the escalating marital tension as the couple fights to find a place, emotionally and physically, where they’ll both be comfortable. Thankfully, neither Bol nor Rial is painted as the villain here, with their warring perspectives sensitively sketched.
Dirisu and Mosaku are equally excellent in their roles. He’s tasked with coming off a bit naive at times, demanding they use cutlery even behind closed doors, but it’s completely understandable why Bol wants so desperately to fit in and go unnoticed after presumably years of living in constant, incapacitating fear. Evocatively staged flashbacks to the couple’s difficult life in Sudan give an insight into just how tough things were for them back home, but Rial wasn’t taken against her will either and Mosaku does a terrific job showcasing just how torn she is between the two worlds. The grieving mother gets lost while running an errand and suffers a racist attack, made doubly worse by the fact it’s committed by a group of Black boys. But her spirit isn’t broken. She’s a resilient woman who’s been through more than anyone could possibly understand.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen an influx in what’s being termed, for better or worse, socially conscious horror, with the likes of Get Out and Us, or even 2019’s Black Christmas and Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man trotted out as examples of how the genre has suddenly grown a conscience. In reality, horror has always reflected society’s ills back at us. The reason these movies are coming to the fore now is because there’s, thankfully, been a massive push for more diverse perspectives, which means the fears of POC and women are being considered on a par with those of straight, white men. It’s a long time overdue, of course, but anybody who believes something has changed for the worse simply hasn’t been paying attention for the last 50 years.
His House is brilliantly done socially conscious horror, but it’s also just a genuinely bloody scary film on its own, too. Weekes doesn’t signal that this is a capital-I “issues” movie, nor does he need to, as anyone with a half-functioning heart will feel empathy for the struggle of his characters, even outside of their haunting. His debut is remarkable not just in how it creates a juxtaposition between the supernatural horrors and the real-life ones lurking just outside the window, but in how it makes us care for a couple whose experience will be different to 99.9 percent of the audience watching at home, comfortably, on their sofas. In a trash-fire year like 2020, Weekes’ film is a necessary reminder that there are always people worse off than ourselves, and we’d do well to remember their struggles even when things seem hopeless.
Catch His House on Netflix now