There is a lot going on in Remi Weekes’ horror film. For the most part, this is a great thing, as this narrative that follows the lives of a couple from South Sudan – who have been forced to flee to England, where they now live as refugees – encompasses so many important issues. However, with a limited length and so much ambition, His House feels uneven – or perhaps constrained. It is a bold debut full of real promise but is not always a success on its own terms as it awkwardly balances expressionistic horror and social realism.
The core story is about the pair, Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) – the Majurs, being placed in public housing and having to deal with the hostilities of the present alongside the ghosts of the past. The house they are given is horrible, as the film clearly exposes the subpar systems that exist for aiding refugees – and those deemed to be outsiders in a very isolationist nation. His House is very good at showing everyday racism and intolerance, showing how even those who think they are well meaning cause great discomfort and how each step of an insufficient process is its own problem. Bol and Rial are housed by Mark (Matt Smith) who urges them to be ‘one of the good ones,’ a deeply uncomfortable phrase that is emblematic of wider moments in the film. It is very telling that, in a horror film, the most uncomfortable and scary moments are the social realist ones: at one point, Rial just goes outside to try to go to a doctor and the film so perfectly captures – for the audience – an inescapable sense of hostility. All the way through, His House makes it clear that the environment is against these people, that they are not welcome. Whether it is melancholic attempts to fit in, that only make them further stand out, or clear examples of racism in their everyday experience, these elements are very powerfully conveyed. Of course, it does not attempt to fully encapsulate the reality of such a complicated experience, it merely attempts to convey a sense of discomfort to the viewer, providing a window into a negative reality.
While Bol and Rial are trying to deal with the hostility of their new environment, they are also haunted by their past. His House is, ultimately, a ghost story. The film works on many metaphorical levels, one of which is using horror imagery to present how horrible the home they have been given is – and how negative the overall experience is. The house does become literally haunted and, to a great extent, this represents the couple being put in a pernicious environment and left to suffer. However, the specifics of the haunting make the film much more interesting. This is a film that captures, very well, the liminality of their experience – a sense of tragic displacement. The ghost that haunts them is something they have brought with them, a demon from the past, perfectly representing how leaving a place does not mean it has left you, and how trauma and suffering never go away. We know, throughout, that the couple have suffered a great loss – not everybody survived the journey to England – and this loss literally and metaphorically haunts them, and these feelings are only made more profound by an unsatisfactory present.
All of this is very powerful and very interesting, and the metaphors are potent – specific, yet wide. However, as a whole, the film is not as successful as its constituent parts. For the most part, this feels due to it taking on too much. At points, the social realist elements – that already evoke horror – sit slightly uncomfortably next to the supernatural elements. The fears at the centre of them do intertwine, it is more that there is a lack of elegance to the narrative structure, and that works against the film. Everything just feels a bit reduced, or somewhat sporadic. It is still impactful, because so much of it is inherently impactful, it just feels uneven and somewhat formative. I got the sense that it would have worked better as a short film that fully dedicated itself to expressionistic horror – going even further – or as a longer film that could give all its ideas justice. This may be a budgetary constraint – and just the realities of first time filmmaking (it is a ninety minute film and that length may have been a stipulation) – but the film is just bursting with great ideas and this is, somewhat, to its detriment. The politics and themes are cohesive but distinct parts are not always given the time or space to truly shine.
However, the central performances are excellent. Both Dirisu and Mosaku manage to perfectly navigate the line between realism and the heightened register of horror. They are able to be unsettling, and to evoke discomfort, when needed, but also give very human performances that create real empathy. The actors communicate so much so well, performing as social symbols as well as unique individuals in their own right. The aesthetic is also strong. So many of the shots are excellent, and very evocative, with a clear visual style and a moody colour palette. The overall aesthetic here is really unique: the ghost story is culturally specific and a presentation of Sudanese refugees is an important context but also a refreshingly different one for what is, in reality, mainstream cinema (this is a Netflix release after all). However, the way it is utilised, in terms of generic language and the way the ghosts act – though not how they look – does sometimes feel very traditional. The film’s clothes are beautiful and different, but the film underneath – when in full horror mode – does feel quite standard. Again, some of this is down to the overall narrative structure, which is the weakest part – but there is always enough here for the film to stand out.
His House is really quite a remarkable debut. There is a confidence and a stylistic boldness to it that is very praiseworthy. It is a refreshing and unique film, in so many ways, but that doesn’t make it great. The ideas and themes are profound but the treatment could be refined. There is the potential for a masterpiece here, and there is so much more to like than dislike, it just does not quite come together in a wholly satisfying way.