New on Netflix, His House joins the ranks of Get Out, Us and Antebellum in conveying black experience through the filter of the horror genre.
The British production is a social thriller of a slightly different flavour, however, stepping away from an examination of systemic racism in the United States to look at the plight of African refugees who make it to the West. As the new film quickly establishes, refugees face a two-fold struggle. There’s the pressure of integrating with an unfamiliar, frequently hostile society eager to eject you for the smallest infraction; and there’s the lingering, toxic trauma of what you went through to reach that country in the first place. That’s a lot for the human psyche to deal with, without cracking under the strain.
This is exactly the situation that South Sudanese refugees, and married couple, Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) find themselves in when they miraculously have their asylum-seeking application approved by the UK government. Their good fortune continues when they’re given a home on a council estate. It’s in terrible condition, but size-wise, the house is practically palatial, and it’s all theirs. Bol is especially eager for a fresh start, but that’s when the rustling and whispering in the walls begins. It may not be so easy to leave their past behind, after all.
As a horror film, His House already stands out thanks to its focus on the African immigrant experience, which is rarely spotlighted in mainstream cinema. The movie strengthens its premise further by marrying it with staples of the haunted house sub-genre. For example, one of the most common questions asked by horror viewers is why the occupants of a ghost-infested building don’t just leave when inexplicable, disturbing things start happening? In His House, Bol and Rial are tied to their location because of their political status. If they leave, they get deported back to bloody South Sudan.
So His House has a strong concept, contains a potent plot twist, and features outstanding acting. 2020 has been a rough year for many, but it features two star-making performances from Mosaku, who recently also dominated the screen in TV series Lovecraft Country.
The thing is, for all its positives, His House still feels stronger in concept than execution. It’s very clever, and is chillingly effective in showing how othering and bewildering the refugee experience is. The scariest moments in His House don’t involve things that go bump in the night, but rather what happens in stark grey daylight. Bol and Rial face nearly ceaseless scrutiny and antagonism. Even those who are supportive, like Matt Smith’s frazzled social worker, are exhausted or simply cannot comprehend what the couple has been through in their country of birth.
So there’s your real horror in His House: human selfishness, apathy and cruelty. The film’s supernatural content just doesn’t measure up by comparison. During His House’s 90-minute running time there is no sense of escalating horror, just as there is little in the way of ambiguity. Are Bol and Rial being trolled by the locals? Is it all in their head? Have other refugees lived in the council house before, and had similar experiences? There is nothing that makes the couple question what is happening (although, to be fair, there is good reason for that). They reach an explanation almost overnight, and there are no moments that make the audience doubt Bol and Rial’s conclusion as accurate.
His House is an unsettling watch at times, but it never really reaches its full potential in terms of being a traditionally frightening haunted house tale while it dispenses its social commentary. It doesn’t elbow out any room to present the characters’ mounting fear and paranoia. Neither does it show defiance of the dark forces at work (and possible consequences of doing so), nor does it offer a deeper exploration of the couple’s uncomfortably shifting relationship.
Skimming over these aspects feels like a disservice, when a further ten or so minutes of screen time is likely all that would’ve been required to take the film to the next level of emotionally-engrossing terror. As it stands, His House is intelligent and memorable, but misses out on being a fully satisfying meal for both the mind and soul.
Last Updated: November 2, 2020