While they don’t often get the respect they deserve, horror movies have become one of the best mediums for exploring the true terror that lies within the human mind or the word around us. One such fear that usually gets a lot of screen time is that of isolation and a sense of not belonging, but a new Netflix movie takes those concepts a major step further tapping in to a pretty timely subject, the refugee experience. I mean think about it…few real world scenarios are more frightening than finding yourself in a strange country where you aren’t accepted after you escaped your homeland where you’re life was in danger simply for being where you were. This is an idea tailor made for arthouse horror which is where director-writer Remi Weekes comes in bringing his debut feature film “His House” to Netflix. While exploring ideas like cultural assimilation and trauma, Weekes creates a terrifying film that taps into the horror of an uncomfortable reality while also blending in traditional genre scares for some awesome spice.
“His House” follows couple Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu) who escape war-torn South Sudan with their daughter Nyagak (Malaika Abigaba). Sadly, Nyagak does not survive the journey across the Mediterranean into Europe leaving Rial and Bol in grief. However, the couple experience hope when they are granted probationary asylum in London being homed in a worn-down house. While Bol attempts to adapt to London life and fit in, Rial refuses to surrender her cultural identity. Eventually the pair discover a dark presence within their home tied to the demons of their past that forces them to come face to face with the compromises they’ve made for their asylum. I loved this movie and everything it tries to present as well as the way it presents it. “His House” is an uncomfortable watch, especially for those open to understanding the terror it represents. Rial and Bol are thrown into a world they are unfamiliar with, forced to uproot themselves due to a war they are not a part of but that just happens to have engulfed their homeland making everything they’ve come to accept about their identity and reality truly dangerous for them to embrace. Either they stay in their homeland and risk dying or they maintain their cultural identities in London and risk being outcasts. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
There are two kinds of horror presented in this film. The first is the genre elements you might expect including some very effective jump scares, spooky imagery and even some of the paranormal to boot. Throughout the movie Rial and Bol are haunted by what Rial refers to as a witch that has followed them from Sudan. That witch comes with a backstory that, as you might expect, plays into a hidden detail of the pairs lives that is the key to their current situation in more ways than one. There’s a neat twist that ties the couple to the witch and is revealed quite seamlessly through the witches’ influence later in the film, but up until the third act one could easily see the witch as an interpretation of the discomfort and paranoia Rial and Bol experience in their new environment. Once the truth is reveled the reality is so much worse and the witch becomes not just a representation of their fear, but also the sins they committed in order to escape Sudan and find refuge. Few streaming releases have sent chills up my spine the way this movie has and there were several great moments where I jumped off my couch, none of which felt like cheap attempts at horror conventions. Even if you don’t want to embrace the deeper message behind the movie, the thrills and effective genre elements of “His House” make it fine entertainment at the very least.
But then we come to the second type of horror, the human element of the narrative. Most of “His House” stays pretty confined to the experiences of Rial and Bol as one attempts to hold on to what’s left of her cultural identity and the other attempts to conform. This clash of ideals is a struggle most refugees face in their transitions. Many of them do not leave their homes by choice, but instead out of fear and self-preservation so they lack the longing to conform to their new world and let go of who they once were while the society they’ve journeyed to looks down upon them as different and as outsiders. Bol understands he is not going back and so easily relieves himself of who he once was, embracing a new identity and way of living, that it’s easy to wonder what else he would be willing to do to maintain his sanctuary. Rial on the other hand doesn’t want to change and experiences a personal terror as she is forced to lose the last remaining shreds of her heritage in a world where she feels she doesn’t belong. Along the way they both experience different forms of racism including a stalking white mall cop and a pretty telling scene where Rial experiences prejudice from a trio of black Londoners. It’s genuinely uncomfortable and forces the viewer to not only understand the plight of refugees but also to put themselves in their shoes and experience these simple real-world terrors firsthand and it does it all with tact and without an overarching sense of urgency that would risk turning it into a preachy mess. The horror and character arcs are designed for you to understand their struggles organically, making these revelations much more satisfying and effective.
Director and writer Remi Weekes does a fantastic job melding these horror and human elements together, creating a satisfyingly entertaining feature that also feels significant and insightful. The imagery, pacing and sincere performances from its leads all help add to the atmosphere and disturbing overarching tone the film embraces creating something that’s unsettling in more ways than one. The trauma, the regret, the sacrifices both good and bad, they all have their consequences and are all the result of powers beyond the characters’ control. These aren’t people who willingly left their homes for a better life, they fled to escape hatred and what they found was a different kind of hatred and horror that was merely the lesser of two evils…or so they thought. Thematic horror storytelling rarely gets much better than that. There’s a great balance of entertainment and commentary that makes “His House” a true gem of 2020, one that feels inspired, complete and, best of all, designed to entertain a variety of movie fans from those seeking more thrilling experiences to those who seek more depth from their stories. “His House” is one of those must watch horror features just for its examination of the human experience alone. The fact that it also happens to be a genuinely scare and entertaining horror movie is just icing on the cake.