Movie Review: His House
By Matthew Huntley
November 22, 2020
It would be fair to say Remi Weekes’ “His House” rides the coattails of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” in terms of wanting to be a social commentary that fronts as a horror movie. And to be clear, this isn’t a bad thing. “His House” is just as engaging as “Get Out,” though for different reasons, and it makes us even more grateful for Peele’s film and its commercial and critical success, because it obviously paved the way for other storytellers and studios to harness and reinvigorate genre pictures in order to convey messages that are important and topical. And because they’re genre pictures, it’s a safe bet we can rely on them to at least hold our attention and be entertaining. In this sense, movies like “Get Out” and “His House” deliver a complete package of thoughtfulness and escapism.
At the center of both films lies the theme that fear and anxiety can arise whenever we feel we’re not wanted. More precisely, it’s about how people of color are especially prone to experience such feelings. Whereas “Get Out” focused on racism as a core contributor to mental and physical agitation, “His House” cites xenophobia, specifically toward black refugees.
Even though the metaphors and symbolism in Weekes’ screenplay, from a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, are obvious (and inevitably not as fresh or unexpected as those in Peele’s film, which had the benefit of coming out first), they’re still effective. Like “Get Out,” “House” calls attention to a serious social issue by utilizing traditional horror movie tropes, in particular the old “on one condition” device, whereby characters are told they can acquire an estate of some sort…“one on condition.” And yes, you guessed it, that condition is the estate is haunted.
To be fair, the “estate” in question isn’t really an estate, meaning it’s hardly large or luxurious, and it hasn’t been bequeathed to the characters by a rich relative or anything like that. Plus, the place itself isn’t inherently haunted—it’s the characters who bring the evil with them.
Even so, my heart initially sank thinking it would be this hackneyed setup “House” would use to fuel its story. However, to the film’s credit, it reveals its deeper, more solemn agenda early on and we find ourselves less caught up in its conventions and cliches and more in its people and their situations.
Much of this owed to the film’s dynamic and superb leads, Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku. They play Bol and Rial Majur, a young married couple who have recently escaped the violence and devastation of their native South Sudan. When the British government grants Bol and Rial probational asylum, Dirisu and Mosaku immediately prove just how expressive and convincing they are as actors, because upon their characters receiving word they’ll be given their own house, we sense their overwhelming relief and hope. We see it in their eyes and hear it in their breath. Their feelings of elation contrast with those of the British officials, who view Bol and Rial as just another set of refugees to process instead of as human beings worth saving.
All this follows an ominous opening sequence during which Bol has a nightmare and recalls the painful loss of his and Rial’s daughter, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba), who drowned as their refugee boat crossed the Mediterranean. With the news they can now stay in Britain, Bol and Rial want to believe their daughter’s tragedy is behind them and they can start anew, but there’s something about their sudden good fortune that still doesn’t feel quite right.
Not that their new house is all that good of a fortune anyway. It sits in the middle of a foggy, rundown area just outside London, and we wince when their less-than-sensitive case worker, Mark (Matt Smith), gives them a tour of their new “home,” which is laden with trash, infested with rats, barely held up by peeling walls, and emits a pungent odor. Mark’s cavalier attitude toward the conditions supports the sad but probably true idea that government authorities often view refugees as beggars who don’t have the right to be choosers and, for them, anything should be better than nothing. What’s more is the neighborhood’s other tenants immediately scowl at Bol and Rial, sending them looks of disdain and “How dare you think you can come here?!” Some even explicitly yell at them, “Go back to Africa!”
Through all this, Weekes get us to legitimately ponder that even though Bol and Rial are under no immediate physical threat like the fires, bombs and guns posed in South Sudan, they’re still subject to inhumane treatment, including mental stress, depression, loneliness and ostracization, which can be just as damaging to a person’s well-being. Both feel the pressure to assimilate lest they be sent back, with Bol going so far as to buy polo shirts and join the locals at a pub to watch a football match. Rial is less submissive and feels she shouldn’t have to relinquish her culture, and certainly not sentimental keepsakes such as her daughter’s necklace.
If “Get Out” used comedy and horror to lighten its mood and temporarily release some of the racial tension it stirred, “His House” chooses drama and horror. The latter comes in the usual forms of strange, inexplicable visions and noises that Bol and Rial see and hear as they try to make a home out of their crumbling surroundings. They see the corpses of their fallen fellow refugees and other disturbing objects embedded into the walls. A grotesque, towering figure also sneaks up behind them but as soon as they turn around, there’s nothing there.
Such typical horror devices might have come across as dull and standard if it weren’t for the length to which Weekes’ screenplay goes to explain them, which leads to the film’s surprisingly effective and convincing drama. Without giving too much away, Rial tells Bol that she believes an apeth, or “night witch,” has followed them from South Sudan and is essentially punishing them for a past transgression. The witch presumably speaks to Rial but Bol would rather live in denial, although the mental and physical manifestations he endures as a result of the witch’s presence begin to take their toll. His suffering is a reminder that just because we sometimes feel we’ve lived through extreme trauma and hardships doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be honest with ourselves and doesn’t give us the right to treat others heartlessly. The film argues that we’re all susceptible to selfishness, forgetting what really matters, and viewing people as objects rather than humans, and we need to learn to accept and deal with our pain.
This is a tried-and-true message, to be sure, but Weekes’ and his cast relate it earnestly and effectually. The film builds itself up to an emotional payoff that is both dark and shattering but that gets us to really understand the characters’ motivations. We end up seeing them as agonists rather than sinners and the film speaks genuinely about human desperation, especially when it comes to survival. And just because it’s a horror movie doesn’t mean we take its commentary less seriously. It’s impressive that even amidst all the sensationalism and gore that occupies the final act, we still find ourselves enthralled and empathetic toward Bol and Rial’s absolution.
If “House” has a flaw, it’s that, as a horror movie, it’s not especially scary or thrilling. Weekes’ gift as a storyteller, at least as far as this film goes, seems to lie with drama, which made me wonder if “House” would have rendered more powerful by using a genre other than horror as its chief platform. The production design, cinematography and special effects are convincing and competently executed, and they technically make this a horror movie, but they also come across as more sufficient than exciting. The drama and characters overshadow them, which is a good thing overall, but even so, the movie didn’t frighten me the way Weekes likely intended.
In spite of this minor shortcoming, “His House” resonates with us and is a worthy entry in the field of social commentating films that use traditional genres to make relevant points. It’s reassuring to think films such as “Get Out” and “His House” are being made more frequently and the studios funding seem inspired by their messages. Films like these make us think, feel, empathize, and react but also allow us to sit back and be entertained. That’s a paradoxical combination but also a welcome one.