Rial Majur (Wunmi Mosaku) sits across the table from her husband Bol (Sope Dirisu). She looks him in the eye. “After all we’ve endured,” she says. “After what we have seen…what men can do, you think it is bumps in the night that frighten me?” Her husband says nothing. Rial presses him, “You think I can be afraid of ghosts?”
Indeed the most unsettling moments of Remi Weekes’ His House are often the most mundane. The everyday horrors of apathetic government workers, of run-down, washed-out suburbs that twist into labyrinths, and of a community equally weary and wary of new arrivals. Horror in recent years has rarely managed to achieve these levels of discomfort – to say nothing of the creatures that lurk within the walls of Bol and Rial’s new home.
As a young couple fleeing the violent conflict in South Sudan, the Majurs are among the few refugees to survive their stormy voyage across the Mediterranean. Upon arriving in England they are begrudgingly granted asylum and a ramshackle house on the outskirts of London to call their own. “Be one of the good ones,” their caseworker (Matt Smith) tells them, and threat is clear. For if you aren’t “one of the good ones”, then what do you become?
It’s a question that seems to haunt Bol in particular. He and his wife face not only despotic government restrictions (“No pets, no guests, no friends, no parties, no ball games, no games, no balls…”), racism and hostility from their neighbours, but also the shared grief of losing their daughter Nyagak out on the open water. While Bol seems eager to bury the past beneath his attempts to perform the identity demanded of him (the construction of whiteness by a clothing department advert strikes a particularly grotesque note), Rial is more reluctant. Yet in spite of Bol’s insistence, their house is not their own. Something has followed them from one home to another, and it is hungry not just for blood, but for the truth.
One of the strengths of His House, compared to today’s average Hollywood horror, is that it refuses to allow its poignant story to be encumbered by the need to over-explain its supernatural elements. Rial, recognising the creature for what it is – an apeth, or night witch – tells a story not of the creature’s specific origins or desires, but of the terror that it brings to those it haunts, of the demands it places upon its victims. The mystery at the heart of His House is not the nature of the beast, but that of the people it hunts, and the absence of the usual coyness leaves room for the impressive performances of Dirisu and Mosaku to shine. Dirisu is closer to being the audience avatar: uncertain, fearful, and often a toy for the spirits that increasingly plague his house. Mosaku as Rial is both empathetic and unsettling, finding she prefers the company of familiar ghosts to that of strangers who cannot appreciate her story. Part of the film’s subtlety is that in this haunted house, the people within experience it differently. While Bol is clawed at, screamed at, and crept up on, Rial is stared at, whispered to, and even finds her own way to communicate with the dead things in the walls. It’s difficult, at times, to decide which is worse: to be openly terrorised like Bol or to be warned, like Rial, to fear your own husband and be tormented with the choice to sacrifice something in the present to breathe life into a spectre from the past.
The ghosts also seem to have a far more physical relationship with this house in comparison with those of other horror narratives: they crawl around inside the walls like insects, they come up from beneath the floor, they create cracks and mould and peer out of holes in the plaster. When Bol smashes up the walls with a hammer, desperate to rid himself of the intrusion, it feels as much like a strike against all the house represents as it does against the spirits themselves – and the catharsis is palpable. It’s unusual partly because, as we later discover, the apeth is far more attached to Bol and Rial than to the house itself. But the strong somatic presence of the ghosts and the apeth makes the psychological elements feel all the more visceral, and it helps the flashbacks to Bol and Rial’s time in South Sudan achieve even more potency.
His House is a rare gem of modern horror. With a tightly focused story, compelling characters, and a genuinely shocking twist, it’s the kind of horror film that demands both your attention and your fear. But more importantly, it feels grounded in real-life narratives that need and deserve this kind of attention as much as the medium itself has been crying out for variation in the kind of stories it’s been telling. It’s been a struggle for the film industry this year, and without the backing of Netflix it’s sadly difficult to imagine a smaller, independent film like this would have broken much ground. But I’m absolutely ready to see more films like His House in the future – and to celebrate those behind the stories they tell.