Home Theatre: His House - The demons they must face
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is His House, streaming on Netflix
Real-life horrors are much more horrific than anything supernatural. As Rial tells her husband Bol, "After all we've endured, after we have seen what men can do, you think it is bumps in the night that frighten me? You think I can be afraid of ghosts?" Rial and Bol are refugees who have made it from civil-war-torn South Sudan to the UK after much hardship. During their perilous journey, several others who travelled with them perished, including their girl, Nyagak. But their struggles aren't over. They are treated like prisoners in what they hope will be their new home. They are held in a detention centre; uncertain of their fate, reliving their past in nightmares. And when they are finally allowed to leave detention, it is only a form of 'bail'. They are told they have to follow certain conditions and failure to do so, even once, will lead to deportation — a one-way ticket back to hell. These draconian rules include not being allowed to work or in any way supplement the pittance of an allowance they are provided and compulsorily staying in state-provided housing.
That last condition works in favour of the genre here. A question that we often have when watching haunted house movies is why the people there won't simply leave. In Remi Weekes' Netflix Original film, His House, Rial and Bol cannot leave. Their future depends upon it. Still, the terrors of the house get to Bol enough for him to ask their caseworker to find them a new house. He is told there will be an inquiry and there will be questions about why they cannot adapt. This pressure to adapt and fit in is very strong. And fitting in means giving up their own culture and language. Bol, who is the more desperate of the two to stay in the UK, keeps pushing Rial to adapt to the customs of their host country — he insists on using cutlery rather than eating with their hands, speaking English, and so on.
Rial, however, does not want to give up everything, all of who she is, just to stay on in a country where they are not particularly welcome. They face indifference, condescension, resentment and dehumanisation. And it doesn't come only from white people. In a particularly affecting scene, Rial is relieved to see a group of young black men when she's lost on her way to the doctor. She approaches them for help only to be mocked for her accent and have them tell her to "go back to Africa." It hits harder than the sneers of the white folks. On the other hand, the white men who work at the government agency that handles their asylum petition keep mentioning how much bigger the house they've been given is than their own. If only they knew about the ghosts Bol and Rial have to share that house with.
Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu turn in incredible performances as Rial and Bol. They really hold the film together and make us see into these characters. Mosaku, particularly, who recently impressed as Ruby in Lovecraft Country, is a revelation in His House. She is riveting all through, but there's a particular dream sequence in the third act where she just breaks your heart. This dream dovetails with a flashback that gives us a glimpse of what this couple has fled from. We neither see nor hear the bloodbath. We only see Rial looking at the scene after it's all over. All we need to understand the scale of the horror is the look on her face. In this portion, and in some striking imagery throughout the film, Remi Weekes makes it hard for us to believe this is his debut feature.
While some of the horror elements are quite unnerving, I found His House works better as a psychological drama about the refugee experience than as a pure horror film. As I said at the beginning, the real horror is in the things this couple has had to see and do and live through. And realising that the supernatural terrors are a manifestation of the trauma they carry with them is what makes His House truly scary. It is a little discussed aspect of the refugee experience. We make it hard enough for them to just live in a new country, without really thinking about what they have to live with. Huge props, therefore, to Felicity Evans and Toby Venables for writing this story, and to Remi Weekes, Wunmi Mosaku, and Sope Dirisu, for telling it so well.