His House is a formally confident and unsettling debut that fully impresses even as it falls just short of greatness.
The new Netflix horror film His House is refreshingly blunt — bordering on didactic — and like so many recent genre exercises, once you strip away the ghosts and jump scares, it’s really, actually, about trauma. But here that idea is foregrounded, not squirreled away like some dubiously profound subtext, and yoked to something fundamentally, terrifyingly real. What if the place you find refuge in is just as dangerous as the place you fled? Bol Majur (Sope Dirisu) and his wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are refugees from the Sudanese civil war. They’ve braved unimaginable hardship to flee to England, and as the film begins, they are being released from a holding center and placed in their very own home somewhere in the outskirts of London. It’s government housing, rows upon rows of identical, anonymous, and bland buildings, with garbage and broken furniture strewn everywhere, but Bol is nonetheless elated. The house is his, the thing he has strived for. Rial is less enthused, still haunted by the loss of their daughter during a treacherous ocean crossing. Director Remi Weekes is quick to sketch in the very real hurdles the couple faces: uncaring or otherwise unsympathetic officials, endless bureaucracy, suspicious neighbors, the ludicrously long list of restrictions they must follow to remain eligible for asylum, their unfamiliarity with the city, casual racism. It’s in this loaded environment that things begin to go bump in the night, with Bol at first refusing to believe his own eyes while Rial gradually retreats further and further into isolation.
Weekes constructs some genuinely creepy thrills from some very familiar formal maneuvers, emphasizing off-screen space and a deep, recessed background as specters loom just beyond our line of sight, darting in and out of the frame. Smartly, Weekes uses the specificity of the milieu to enhance the terror; peeling wallpaper, intermittent electrical shortages, dangling wires, and holes in the wall are not only evidence of something dark intruding in the home, but are also reflective of an entire legacy of neglect — who knows how many destitute people have been shunted into this space, unwanted and uncared for. And in this way, while His House is a largely bloodless affair, its scenes are still absolutely nerve-shredding. It becomes clear that these hauntings are exasperating an already tenuous relationship between Bol and Rial, a deep schism that is gradually revealed through cryptic visions and flashbacks. The dissolution of this couple is rendered via remarkable, heartbreaking performances by Dirisu and Mosaku. Bol is desperate to assimilate, joining in on nonsensical chants during a football game at the pub and declaring to anyone who will listen that he and Rial are “good ones.” As the film progresses, his glowing smile is gradually transformed into a kind of rictus grin, as if he can move past the horror of his life through sheer force of will. Mosaku plays Rial as an exhausted shell of a woman, someone who sees the couple’s new home as just another prison (pointedly, the film is called His House, not “Her” or even “Their” house). Bol’s great sin, the cause of their haunting, is eventually revealed, and if the film stops just short of being great, it’s because Weekes rushes through the denouement instead of lingering with these people and sinking even more deeply into the material. Still, this is profoundly unsettling stuff, and a sterling example of the power that diverse voices in front of and behind the camera hold in expanding the genre’s horizons.
You can currently stream Remi Weekes’ His House on Netflix.