Remi Weekes' ambitious and empathetic debut makes incredible use of a modest budget, conjuring stunning visuals and chilling scares
With Ben Wheatley now off re-imagining Rebecca and helming Hollywood sequels to Tomb Raider and The Meg, British horror is in need of some new champions. Step forward Remi Weekes, whose immensely accomplished debut His House hits all the spooky haunted house notes you’d expect, while weaving in plenty of its own unique magic. A disturbing but subtly hopeful look at the refugee experience in the UK, it marks out Weekes as a confident and exciting new talent.
Fleeing the war in South Sudan, married couple Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) find refuge in Britain, where they’re housed in a nondescript town somewhere in the vicinity of London. Their relief at finding a new home is swiftly replaced by terror, though, as a malevolent spirit living in the walls starts making itself known in violent outbursts, often involving the ghost of the daughter that Bol and Rial lost in the sea crossing between Africa and Europe.
These early hauntings are excellent, conjuring proper watch-between-your-fingers fear without resorting to too many jump scares, and Weekes uses his modest budget expertly. There are quite a few highly ambitious nightmare sequences spread through His House, taking us back to South Sudan and across the roiling sea, and Weekes’s canny use of effects makes these moments immersive and seamless, without ever seeming like the film is overstretching itself.
Eventually, Bol and Rial work out not only that they’re definitely being haunted, but precisely what kind of spirit is responsible. It’s an interesting twist in a genre that usually relies on the audience knowing more than the characters to generate tension – one that opens His House up to a more emotional exploration of its monster and the forces that drive it, albeit at the expense of the big scares found earlier in the film.
As well as being a manifestation of Bol and Rial’s grief and survivor’s guilt, the spirit’s constant assertions that the pair need to return home make it an effective avatar of Hostile Environment Britain, obsessed with getting rid of migrants no matter how vile the consequences. Weekes does a fantastic job of making the streets and alleys of suburban England feel as alien to the audience as they do to his characters, while avoiding the cliches one might expect from a refugee drama.
From a surprisingly empathetic and understanding housing officer (played by Matt Smith) to the anti-African xenophobia Rial experiences at the hands of Black Brits, Weekes avoids the easy choices, creating a believable and layered world. This setting is grounded by two very impressive central performances from Dirisu and Mosaku, finding an impeccable balance between the trauma, pride, pragmatism, and shrieking fear.
Like Ben Sharrock’s Limbo, another superb 2020 British debut, His House uses genre trappings and sublime visuals to get to the heart of the UK’s miserable asylum system in a way that a more obvious, straight-laced film perhaps couldn’t. Though it can’t keep up the terror of its first act all the way through, His House retains a haunting chill until its final moments, bringing the ghosts of displaced peoples directly to your door.
His House is now showing in cinemas. It will be available to stream on Netflix on October 30.Where to watch