His House is a brilliant reimagining of the haunted house horror genre. Quite surprisingly, it’s a feature film debut for Remi Weekes whose strong sense for aesthetic and swirling themes are handled dexterously. Hollywood tends to glamorise Africa, focusing on the regal or decorative elements of traditional cultures or drawing heavily on the untamed safari experience. While some of these aspects are essential to Africa, the adventurous, colourful and festive predilection covers over a swamp of much heavier themes. Documentary film-makers are now the purveyors of Africa’s darkest secrets, which is why His House is so refreshing – daring to tackle some of the continent’s most grievous issues.
Hotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland were bold enough to capture some of the atrocities of genocide, xenophobia and tribal rifts. Yet, horror has a way of going to the heart of things without having to bow to realism in its retelling. While Weekes feels no obligation to root his film in reality, frequently venturing into a surreal dimension and constantly operating from an ambiguous perspective, its much more grounded than your average feature film. Set in the United Kingdom, the film is already subscribed to a different set of values. While typically more subdued and cerebral, Weekes taps into the wilderness of films like 1408 – transporting the audience from a rundown residential area back in time and into the metaphysical realm.
There’s a strong connection with Rosemary’s Baby in His House, focused on a room, a neighbourhood and a child. The psychological torment is where the tension lies in this suspenseful examination and meditation on a refugee couple trying to fit into their new surroundings. Narrowly escaping Sudan with their lives, a tragic boat ride finds them in the United Kingdom where they’re detained before finally receiving the opportunity to seek asylum. On strict probation, Bol and Rial are relieved to be given accommodation and a stipe end to help them settle into their new culture and life together. Under the care of Mark, they aim to be one of the “good ones” trying their best to reflect the culture and keep their heads down. While their spacious house is bigger than that of their care workers, they soon discover it comes with a price.
Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku are not name actors, a casting decision that helps immerse us in their world and mirrors the grounded approach of Weekes. Harnessing the abilities of a more familiar actor would have possibly improved the performances but would’ve taken away from the docudrama undertones of His House. It’s not aiming for documentary realism but opts to root us in the dizzying drama of the couple’s circumstances. Pivoting from this kitchen sink situation with a desirable yet grotesque home, the house becomes a metaphor for post traumatic stress disorder, repressed memories and the ghosts of our past.
“Nope, still load-shedding…”
It’s much more than an emotional undertaking, acknowledging the refugee crisis and allowing Africa’s real horrors to seep into the film. Living in a state of alienation, feeling the pangs of dislocation and facing the imminent threat of deportation – these conditions are perfect for intense drama, suspense and horror. Embedding the fearful couple in this moody environment, their rough neighbours and an air of xenophobia festers much like the house as its evil presence intensifies. Developing this unwelcome atmosphere, the couple feel the pressure of their environment and psychological stress as they too succumb to the divisive nature of their predicament.
This is an unsettling and often frightening horror that has a poetic touch when it comes to representing some of the horrors of Africa and the distress of the refugee experience. Through convincing and heartfelt performances from Dirisu and Mosaku, the difficulties of seeking asylum and weighty themes around genocide are ever present. Using darkness, sound effects and imagination – His House doesn’t shy away from nightmarish and otherworldly sequences that have a destabilising effect, creating uncertainty and trepidation. Leveraging classic haunted house elements, it has a great sense of balance – letting the rope out into other realms without ever lifting both feet off the ground.
His House teeters on the edge with its rich and raw ambition but snares so much angst, guilt and pain in the process. Building and building the atmospheric tension, the watershed moment is a relief and deeply moving as a couple push through the trauma and make pure sacrifices. The thematic content makes for heavy-going but adds another layer to this horror, which speaks to much greater atrocities and horrors. Using the genre as a form of cathartic poetry, His House brings difficult human experiences into clear view making it more important than pure entertainment. Intense, powerful, purposeful and surreal… Remi Weekes has made a breathtaking horror that activates classic elements of the genre while refreshing the haunted house subgenre with style.
The bottom line: Encompassing