City Paper is not for tourists
The recent Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor imagined ghosts as a potent metaphor. Showrunner Mike Flanagan saw them as metaphors for grief, exaggerated and distorted so they frighten and “haunt” the memory of survivors. His House, the new Netflix horror film, takes this idea and deepens it through socioeconomic and global subtext. This is a horror film with a lot on its mind, without losing any genre requirements.
Writer and director Remi Weekes wastes no time in contrasting his film with other haunted house stories. The couple in question are not affluent, and their home is not a masterpiece of gothic production design. Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are refugees from South Sudan, and after a brief glimpse into their harrowing boat journey to Europe, we view them seeking asylum in England. A low-level bureaucrat (Matt Smith) helps them acclimate into run-down public housing. The couple is forbidden to work or move elsewhere, so mostly, they wait for their case to be processed. Trauma still lingers in their mind, and soon they have ghostly visitors who terrorize them.
His House effectively blurs the line between ordinary and supernatural situations. Sure, there is a scene where Bol screams at the ghosts haunting him, except there are other tense scenes where Rial, new to England, deals with harassment and racism in the strange neighborhood where she now lives. Everything is alien to this young couple, except a disturbing past they both share. Even during the shocking final images, it is hard to imagine recovering from what they experienced, which is partially why survivor’s guilt governs the decisions they ultimately make. This is a surprisingly self-aware horror film—Bol mocks the ghosts when he realizes they cannot physically hurt them—although that does not make the scares any less intense.
There are a fair amount of jump scares in this film, but Weekes is always fair in how he uses them. Seasoned horror veterans will recognize the creepy bits before they happen, since the genre tends to rely on the same cinematic grammar, and the frequency of these moments means the audience never has much opportunity to get comfortable. On top of grotesque creatures who slink in the shadows, Weekes gets a lot of mileage out of thumping sounds. The walls and floors are not exactly thick in this home, and the rapid thuds of the ghosts are a sudden, unmistakable hint that something scary is about to happen. Combined with plausible production design and sickly green cinematography, the sense of terror and decay is always on full display.
You may recognize Wunmi Mosaku from Lovecraft Country, another popular recent horror story. There, she played Ruby, a strong-minded, charismatic young woman. Her character in His House could not be more different: reserved and inward, Rial speaks and moves like a survivor who feels the worst is yet to come. She is a good foil for Dirisu, who is more determined to make the best of a fresh start. Their impasse is deeper than we first anticipate, despite the couple being married, and it culminates with both of them finding reserves of empathy for each other. They get there in roundabout way, with Weekes using flashback to deepen our point of view. Like the best horror, there is also a measure of the sympathy for the ghosts, who are not malevolent tricksters, just angry spirits who use whatever they can to ensure they are not forgotten.
Halloween season is usually an opportunity for folks to celebrate the less intense, spooky aspects of horror. His House is nothing like that: It is a somber film with strong implications about systemic racism and the responsibility its characters feel toward their homeland. Perhaps it’s not the ideal film to watch while waiting for trick or treaters, assuming they even show up this year, but its tone suggests the haunted house subgenre can evolve while keeping its core principles in check. If Poltergeist is about how ghosts can infiltrate the lily-white suburbs, the implications of ghosts in public housing are more staggering and global.
His House is streaming now on Netflix.