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You know how it is – at the start of October, you eagerly volunteer to review His House when it comes out on Netflix at the end of the month; at the end of October, His House comes out on Netflix, and Ireland plunges back into a second full fat national lockdown. Scientists remain divided on whether those two events are connected, but it doesn’t take an expert epidemiologist to understand that watching a haunted house movie while simultaneously trapped in your own home, with nothing but the darkest recesses of your own imagination for company, puts you at a high risk of contracting a bad case of the feared Heebie Jeebies (not the fun kind of Heebie Jeebies that horror films are meant to give you – the kind which can have a serious adverse effect on your already fragile mental state).
And so you put off watching His House, and the Headstuff film section remains bereft of hot takes on it. But eventually you/I (gonna switch to the first person now I reckon) finally watch it, and oh boy, do I have a take – His House is, in my opinion, the best horror movie of (an admittedly disrupted) 2020. It follows a South Sudanese refugee couple, Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), who are granted bail from a detention centre in England, and are temporarily put up in a decrepit house in a dismal part of a dreary city (sorry for the disses, Stoke-on-Trent fans).
Now, when I first heard the synopsis of the film, I worried it was going to be the sort of haughty liberal fever dream where the real horror lies in those awful, uniformly racist working class people. But it’s a much more subtle, intelligent, surprising film than that, with a far more sophisticated take on the myriad traumas that anyone claiming refugee status has and will experience. Of course, it would be wildly inaccurate to pretend refugees don’t encounter racism when they arrive in predominantly white Western countries, and His House doesn’t shy away from that. But the depressing bureaucracy of the immigration system and the quiet hostility of some of Bol and Rial’s neighbours forms more of an unsettling backdrop to the actual horror of the film, which comes from the fact that the house does, indeed, appear to be literally haunted.
And what a splendid haunting it is! His House doesn’t go all in on jump scares, but the ones it does deploy work almost uniformly well. The most icy shivers it sends down your spine are when malevolent, zombie style apparitions drift silently across Bol and Rial’s peripheral visions. They’re ambiguous and strange, and leave plenty for your imagination to take to dark places. They’re also effective indicators of the couple’s fraying mental state, which lays the groundwork for some of the movie’s most terrifying and intense moments down the closing stretch.
When the creatures step out of the shadows, they can underwhelm – a scene when Bol is attacked en masse by them doesn’t quite ratchet up the terror in the way writer and director Remi Weekes clearly hopes. On the whole though, Weekes does an excellent job with his less is more approach, and His House rewards paying close attention to what is lurking in the back of the protagonists’ minds. On a somewhat related note, when the film shifts gears somewhat in its final third to dwell on the real life horrors of conflict, silence is again used to make frightening imagery hit home all the harder. The way the camera pans dispassionately across the aftermath of a massacre, without even some appropriately grim backing music to subtly comfort you with the reminder that you’re watching a film, is for me His House’s most devastatingly brilliant moment.
Aside from an extended cameo from former Dr. Who Matt Smith as jaded case worker Mark, His House is essentially a two-hander from Sope Dirisu as Bol and Wunmi Mosaku as Rial. They are both tremendous. I was particularly impressed by Dirisu, who manages to harness Bol’s likeable optimism for truly unsettling purposes as the film progresses. But it would be remiss not to mention that the gut punches His House so ruthlessly delivers would be nowhere near as painful without Musaki carrying the emotional weight of the film. Her understated, stoic, dignified portrayal of Rial may not be as immediately compelling as Dirisu’s more charismatic Bol, but you appreciate what she’s doing as His House flashes back to South Sudan and dwells on the journey the couple undertook to make it to England, and the peculiar nature of their relationship with their late daughter Nyagak. Nyagak drowned during the crossing to Europe, but appears to have returned as part of the coterie of spirits haunting them.
I’m going to tread carefully here because I don’t want to spoil too much, but the source of the terror Bol and Rial are experiencing derives from a terrible decision they had to make while fleeing South Sudan. This is great, because it gives them a profound sense of agency. It was only after I’d finished His House that I realised how much, I think, we talk about refugees solely in terms of the massive suffering they have faced in their lives. This is understandable because it seems the most direct way of triggering compassion towards them from people who may otherwise be disinclined to offer it. But it comes at the cost of turning swathes of refugees into less people than a blob of homogeneous misery receptacles, for whom disaster appears to be the beginning and end of their story.
You are, of course, more than entitled to disagree – I’m not sure if I’ve expressed this notion clearly, and even if I have, I don’t have any concrete evidence for it. It’s more just a hunch. The point is, Bol and Rial suffer and suffer and suffer, but the most interesting thing about them isn’t just the disasters they have borne witness to. I will never come close to experiencing the trauma that Bol and Rial go through just to escape South Sudan and start afresh in Europe. But the complete lack of sentiment with which His House presents their backstories, while still ultimately showing them to be good and noble people made me feel like I had a glimmer of understanding of what actually happens to people as they flee a war zone, and what it takes to rebuild your life somewhere new and not especially welcoming.
His House, then, is a film that succeeds on every level. As a character study, it’s truthful and compelling. As a refugee narrative, it’s sensitive and unflinching. Most importantly, as a horror film, it’s creepy as fuck. It is only 90 minutes long, and if you put off watching it for when you’re feeling less queasy about the state of the world (as I tried to), you’ll regret it.