Synopsis: As a young refugee couple tries to start over in England, they’re tormented by a sinister force tied to the horrors they escaped in war-torn South Sudan.
Stars: Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Javier Botet
Director: Remi Weeks
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: Like almost all of you reading this, I’d like to fast forward these next few weeks to get through all the garbage that’s making North America a real horror show right now. You can’t turn the TV on without seeing some talking head pointing fingers about emails or shaking heads about the economy while families think about how to survive through a pandemic on smaller incomes due to loss of jobs. Yet I wonder, when all of the election talk is done…are we ready to get back to looking at the true horrors that are happening in other parts of the world that go above and beyond the immediate problems surrounding the spread of COVID-19?
The bloody wars that have been ongoing in African countries have sent immigrants fleeing to neighboring countries and to places as far distant as parts of Europe and the UK. Those that are intercepted in their journey are often kept in detention centers while their cases are evaluated and either sent back to face certain death or allowed to stay but under severe restrictions with limitations to their livelihood that could be considered oppressive. Is this a fate worse than they would have experienced back home? Have they traded one life sentence for another?
You wouldn’t think a film that falls easily into the horror genre could also ask such deep questions at the outset, but His House is a rare, beautiful bird. Debuting on Netflix and containing the kind of turn your hair white with fright kind of scares one moment and deeply moving scenes dealing with grief and loss the next, it’s in line with The Haunting of Hill House in capturing what frightens us mentally and emotionally in its purest form. Not all films are able to pull you in both directions so quickly and not dislocate something in the process but director Remi Weeks takes the multi-layered screenplay from Felicity Evans and Toby Venables and peels its reveals off at just the right time.
Arriving in the UK where they have sought asylum, Bol (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) survived the terrifying voyage from Sudan but their daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba) was lost at sea when the boat capsized. Without their child, they cling to each other and are relieved when they are allowed to stay in the country and given their own flat, a dilapidated but large council house just outside of London. Before handing over the keys to their home, the social services worker assigned to their case (Matt Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) encourages them to “be one of the good ones.” Left alone in a two story apartment with bugs crawling in empty pizza boxes and no electricity, the couple spends their first night remembering the first time they met.
In their first few days, Bol gets to know the neighborhood while Rial largely stays indoors. He wants to adjust to their new life and acclimate to the British culture while she is haunted by the memories of their voyage and the people that were left behind. The home in disrepair, Bol buys supplies to patch up a living room wall and it’s here he first catches sight of an impossible vision – Nyagak. The same but…different. Rial starts to see things too, but it’s of a different entity that tells her of terrible things to come. A witch from an event in their past has latched on to them and followed the couple to this new house. This is no ordinary witch, however. This is a witch with a vengeance, a witch that demands payment, a witch that has methods of persuasion that blur the line of reality for both husband and wife searching for very different things in their new country.
There’s nary a joint out of place here, with Weeks creating a living and breathing blood knot of a film that starts off going one direction and continues to pivot just when you think you know what station you’re pulling into. Often I would be prepared for the surprise that was just revealed to lead to a logical next step but was somehow never on the right track. You can thank Evans and Venables for the framework that thinks outside the box and looks at a world and culture bigger than what we typically consider when we hear the phrase “horror film”. It’s a horror film, no doubt, but to slice it that thin or walk away from it with only that takeaway would be a disservice to the filmmakers and especially the performances.
The two leads in the film are pretty incredible, if you ask me. Essentially a two-hander, His House is a showcase for Dìrísù and Mosaku and it grows into what it is based on the work the two do as a combined unit. You definitely get the feeling these two have a connection to each other, making the detachment that creeps in around the halfway point that much more pivotal to the next phase of the film and, ultimately, its resolution. I’ve been a fan of Mosaku since her fantastic turn in the final season of the Idris Elba television show Luther and she’s already had a great year as a supporting character in HBO’s Lovecraft Country. She’s got a whopper of a scene near the end that the film hinges on and it’s a master class in delivering essential plot driving narrative while also controlling our understanding of her character’s emotional awakening to a painful truth she doesn’t want to accept. Almost entirely without words…beautifully done.
Along with the emotional weight carried by His House is the fear factor Weeks includes, but doesn’t force, on the proceedings. Yes, the movie has a boatload of truly (truly) frightening moments and by the time the first one arrives you’ve forgotten you’re watching a horror movie so Weeks likely will have most audience members leaping out of their skin right away. The rest of the chills are derived from simple reveals and clever uses of light and distraction to get us looking one way while something is arriving from another. I don’t often hold my hands in front of my face but I found myself instinctively doing that here at several points that were just too scary to keep my eyes fixed on. The make-up, mask, and costume-design all add to the atmosphere. It’s impressive all around.
Listen, I like stupid slasher films as much as the next person and will line-up in the cold temps for the chance to see the latest bad CGI shark film but I’d give up ten of those movies if we can get one film like His House every six months. This is a classy film that has a grace to its scares, a respect for its characters, and a desire to leave the audience with something to think about when the film is over. All while being incredibly entertaining. Highest recommendation.