Let’s do a refugee drama, which no one wants to watch, as a haunted house movie, which everyone does. That’s the thinking behind His House, a canny mix of genres from writer/director Remi Weekes in his feature debut, which adds a further layer of originality by adding all sorts of weird African supernatural juju to the mix.
This clever and atmospheric amalgam kicks off with a pair of refugees from the war in South Sudan being shown a house on a housing estate in shithole Britain. It’s loads better than the detention centre and so Bol (Sope Dirisu) and his wife Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) cannot believe their luck. They move straight in. Of course there’s going to be a catch, but what is it going to be – racist neighbours, maybe?
The troubles are closer to home. Bol has PTSD which manifests itself as dreams so vivid that he starts to believe that he’s being visited by the spirit of their dead daughter. It’s an apeth, a malevolent spirit, wife Rial tells him. And once an apeth has moved in…
Desperate not to be marked out as trouble-makers, genuinely grateful to have somewhere to live, they refrain from telling the authorities (in the person of a social worker played by Matt Smith at such a level of affability that it’s sinister).
Meanwhile, more concrete daily concerns. How to fit in to this new society, and whether to. He goes all in, joining in with the terrace chant about lanky footballer Peter Crouch (“he’s big, he’s red, his feet stick out of bed”) at his local pub, sitting at the table and using a knife and fork, while she sticks to the African colourful clothes and eats on the floor using her hands instead of utensils.
Weekes alternates the refugee drama/horror movie tropes with skill, linking the two together with a rising sense of dread that makes His House nerve-wracking. How a debut director like Weekes got a DP of the order of Jo Willems (Hard Candy, Limitless and three of the Hunger Games movies) and a composer as illustrious and busy as Roque Baños (the 2013 Oldboy, The Commuter) onto his film I don’t know, but her lurking camera and his jangly discordant score really pay dividends here.
There is racism, which you might expect, this being a film about black people living in a largely white area and one by a black director, but again Weekes comes at it in a way that’s both fresh and astutely observed. I’ll say no more.
This being centred on refugees, it was always going to be, at some level, a story about the horrors Bol and Rial have left behind rather than any latent malevolence in the walls of this unprepossessing house. Amityville style, Weekes let that “is it/isn’t it?” question of whether it is it or them – the refugees or a spirit, a psychological problem or one of demonic possession – just hang there, to the point where (and I know I’m almost alone on this) the film started to tread water for a while.
Dirisu and Mosaku’s performances help bridge His House over this moment – think of it as the bit in Jaws where the three guys get drunk and tell stories and Quint sings a song – before the action snaps back and there’s a dash for the disaster-strewn finish. Brilliantly done.
A British Get Out – ie horror from a black perspective? No, His House isn’t about being black in a culture that sees you as an alien, it’s about aliens wondering what to do with that thing they’ve brought with them. An apeth, maybe, or their culture and history, to put it another.
© Steve Morrissey 2021