Bol (Sope Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are a young pair of asylum seekers fleeing the all-consuming violence of South Sudan by way of a dangerous and all-too-familiarly tragic voyage across the Mediterranean. We get glimpses of that violence at home, as well as the voyage toward ostensible security in Europe. But things really kick off with what happens once the couple finally arrives — exhausted, hopeful, doubtful — in the tight-lipped and unwelcoming England, and are immediately confronted with the rigors of their new lives as political refugees.
In most ways, they have it better than most, and they’re reminded of this more than once. Their boat capsized at sea; there’s little to suggest that the survivors were numerous. But they survived. And, somewhat to their surprise, Bol and Rial been approved for asylum status. They’re granted an allowance of 74£ and a place to live in one of London’s lower-class neighborhoods. Large digs given the circumstances, they’re told, even if what greets them upon arrival are roaches and exposed wires. Home sweet home, but not really. They are guests in this country, another thing of which they are often reminded: They are here on bail.
His House — Remi Weekes’ directorial debut, now streaming on Netflix — starts as one type of film and very quickly reveals itself to be something else. Because when the “horror” kicks off, it’s in the context of all of this: the home they’ve been given, the allowance, and, most pressingly, relief from the violence of Sudan. Because all of it comes with strings attached. Bol and Rial can live here, but they can’t live — not really. They can’t break any rules, or work or fend for themselves, or make their own living arrangements. “No pets, no guests, no friends, no parties…” It’s a litany of Don’ts, Can’ts, Not Alloweds. It’s not easy to blend in when you seem to be the only immigrant couple on the block, so foreign in these environs that even the local black residents poke fun at your accent (with more viciousness, it’s worth noting, than most of the white residents). This is our first lesson: How a country manages to say, without anyone needing to say it, that because you’re fleeing the worst, you’ll take what you can get. Better than where you came from, surely, is the logic. This is a movie that wonders, aloud with great terror, whether that’s as true as has been foretold.
Because, to put it plainly, this couple is haunted. And one of His House‘s cleverest plays is to take the conceits of the genre — the home haunted by restless spirits; the demon predator that latches itself onto its victims and follows them wherever they go — and analogizes them to the things a refugee couple might experience in their new homeland. In real life, there’s PTSD, survivor’s guilt, the pain of assimilation into a European culture whose own history of colonialism bears, with enough distance to encourage collective amnesia, on the violence from which the couple has taken refuge. But refugees do not simply leave. They bear with them the scars of where they came from. And here, those scars are as much physical as they are spectral. They’re alive in the things this couple carries: a baby doll and a beaded necklace reminding them of things lost on the way here.
So when the trouble starts, it hits almost as soon as Bol and Rial move in. An outright spookshow rouses them out of bed, talks to them from behind the walls, plays tricks in the shadows. Something lurks, creep-crawling through the interiors, shuffling, gazing out at them. Something as knowing as it is threatening. Something out of the past.
His House is a strong debut, and exciting — even as its horrors risk redundancy as the film wears on — for its uncanny merging of political experience and the usual, perilous haunted-house thrills. Jump scares? We have those. Terrifying ghouls dredged from the bottom of the sea and who-knows-where-else: We have those, too. And all the other tricks of the trade, all the unwelcome surprises, nightmares made plain as day. Weekes seems to know that when it comes to putting the horror of a horror movie on display, one needn’t reinvent the wheel: Give us what we want. Give us the dread of those wide, foreground-heavy shots in which characters appear to us up close as, in the wide-open space of the background, shadows and doorways and light creaks in the distance practically beg of some naughty, deviant surprise to jump out and terrify them — and us.
But the filmmaker also knows that none of this amounts to more than the usual parade of jumps and skin-tingling anticipation without being anchored in some urgent, immediate psychological reality. And that dose of reality is where His House proves inventive. Elaborating on the source of all this spookiness wouldn’t be entirely fair to the movie. Suffice it to say that the title eventually beckons the question of whose house we’re in, exactly. The movie’s answer to this is not quite what you’d expect. It’s elaborated upon by Rial, in a story she tells about a man from her home village, whose desire for prosperity entails theft from others and whose successes are built on the back of other peoples’ losses.
Well, theft is quite a concept in a movie about refugees. And Bol and Rial, as evocatively embodied by Dìrísù and Mosaku, are rightly conflicted. The tensions that grow between them are energizing and interesting. Bol’s overwhelmed mania is like something out of The Shining, a man driven mad by his environs, as well as by his own desire to give in to what England wants and assimilate. (A scene of him shopping for a shirt, with white men in polos looming large on the store’s walls, proves effective at selling us on this idea.) Rial, by contrast, is relatively cool — less perturbed, at least on the surface. But maybe just on the surface.
The ghosts of this movie don’t appear just once or twice; this isn’t a film that makes you wait or in any way holds back from showing us the face of its central evil up close, early, and often. I’ve said this gets a little repetitive. Just as true is the fact that this makes the idea more coherent: it is, like the mental scars afflicting this couple, an uncanny whose power isn’t in its willingness to toy with this couple, but rather, in its persistence. A movie like Get Out announced, in its very title, the desire that movie makes you feel on behalf of its hero: Get out of that house. This movie has the additional, powerful dilemma of forcing you to reckon with whether a couple that has already gotten out — of the Sudan — has anywhere else to go. At one point, when the mania of the house drives one of the film’s heroes to lock them in, the gesture comes off as a bit brash on the one hand, and logically on the other.
The question of whose house this really is does, in fact, have an answer, and that answer is Britain. It’s England, not the Sudan — the couple’s iron-clad colonial present, not their bloodstained past — that initially forbids them from leaving that house. It’s England that smash-fits them into a system of assimilation and self-annihilation. Surely a barren, crusty, corner-pocket council flat offered courtesy of the empire has haunts of its own that rival anything that’s arrived with this new residents, traumas as enriched and deeply rooted as anything they might have brought ashore with them upon landing here. Intriguingly, this aspect of life in U.K. is rendered almost entirely into a matter of the world beyond Bol and Rial’s doorstep. There’s “the system,” as humanely manifest in the form of a social work, Mark (Matt Smith, of Doctor Who and The Crown). There are also the locals: uninviting youths always milling about, pissing on things, hinting at confrontations without much follow-through. The threat feels real. But it also feels external: the actual terrors, the movie suggests, are what’s inside Bol and Rial.
His House takes a curious path through its horrors. Just when you think it’s run out of ideas, the bottom drops out, by way of a dream, or a hallucination — the difference, in this case, is nil. The screenplay, by Weekes, gets smarter as it rolls along. And the ghouls grow in fearsomeness as they grow in number. Yet for all the movie’s flash-effects and clever conceits, actors Dìrísù and Mosaku are its finest element. Mosaku, in particular, has a face and an implacable affect — grief and fear disguised as resignation — that prove to be this movie’s best special effect. She’s also its beating heart and most beguiling feature. With just a cock of her head to this side or that, with just a quick flash of steel in her gaze, she summarizes all the conceits brought to bear on the material. There’s a world of grief in those faces. The power of the movie, in the end, is in giving that world substance. That, and allowing our own fears to bring it to light.