His House is a horror movie about wounded people that cuts beneath the skin. Part of its charm, and ultimately a major reason behind its success, is how confidently debutant director Remi Weekes is able to switch between genres and tones.
Watch the trailer of "His House" here
After premiering at Sundance earlier this year, the film was released over the Halloween weekend on Netflix — but audiences eager for some cheap thrills might be unprepared for Weekes' ambitions as a serious dramatist.
How convenient for the same streaming platform to have released two 'social thrillers' on the same day. But while the Indian offering — Shabana Azmi-starrer Kaali Khuhi — had neither the intelligence nor the confidence to successfully address its gravest theme, female infanticide, His House works equally well as a traditional haunted house picture, and a cautionary tale about the refugee crisis.
It tells the story of Rial and Bol, a couple from South Sudan whom we first meet as they're fleeing from their hostile homeland with their daughter, looking for a better life in Europe. On the perilous journey across the sea, tragedy strikes -- they lose young Nyagak. Three months later, they're granted probational asylum in Britain, and are left to deal with unthinkable trauma in an unfamiliar new land.
They're assigned a dilapidated old house, and are advised by their social worker (played by former Dr Who star Matt Smith), to assimilate and not antagonise. "Be one of the good ones," he tells them, and leaves with a passing mention about how much larger their new house is than his.
But things, as they often tend to in movies such as this, begin to go wrong almost immediately. The couple begins hearing noises in the dark — scurrying footsteps against the wooden floor, whispers from behind the walls. It's standard stuff, but springily done.
Both Rial and Bol have distinctly different reactions to the haunting. While Bol's instinct is to go into denial mode — echoing his reluctance to discuss his daughter's death — Rial seems unperturbed, almost as if she were expecting the ghosts of their past to follow them wherever they go. Having experienced firsthand the horrors that men are capable of, how can she be frightened by 'bumps in the night'?
The reason why tired techniques such as jump scares work in His House, despite mostly falling flat in lesser films, is because Remi Weekes shrouds them with a layer of believability, and regularly raises the human stakes. So even though you might expect a spirit to pop out at any moment, it's effective because the film has already planted the presence of a dead daughter in your subconscious.
The spookiest scene in the movie involves no spirits, however, but spectres from the past. When Rial leaves the house one morning for a health checkup at the local clinic, she gets lost in the labyrinthine back-alleys of the neighbourhood. Her helplessness is terrifying. When she approaches a group of young Black kids for directions, there's a sense of relief. But to everyone's surprise, even the kids are openly hostile towards Rial — they mock her accent and tell her to go back to Africa. What a subversive way to force the viewer to confront their biases.
But in addition to the haunting in their new house, the couple is willing to put up with casual racism, too. It is only when the film enters its third act, and we're shown flashbacks to Rial and Bol's life in South Sudan, that His House transcends the trappings of its genre and evolves into something more meaningful, and ultimately, more memorable. What is more frightening, the film asks -- ghosts that go 'boo', or the demons that haunt us no matter how hard we try to exorcise them?
Jump scares offer instant gratification, which is why most horror filmmakers cannot resist resorting to them. Planting the seeds of true terror, however, requires real storytellers. Like Ari Aster and Jordan Peele before him, Remi Weekes uses genre tropes to highlight human stories; his characters aren't victims, as they so easily could've been. They're survivors.
His House is an assured debut, well worth any horror fan's time.