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Non-Review: His House

His House is a striking and unsettling piece of piece of work, and an impressive feature debut for director Remi Weekes.

His House focuses on Bol and Rial, a refugee couple who have fled war-torn Sudan and arrived in the United Kingdom. Against all odds, the couple are allowed out of the detention centre and assigned their own living space. It is a rundown old house on an estate. “You must have won the jackpot,” explains their case worker Mark, even as the front door falls off its hinges. It is a big house, one in need of a lot of care and work. However, it all belongs to Bol and Rial – and whatever they have brought with them.

That sinking feeling.

His House works on a number of levels. Most obviously and most importantly, it is genuinely unsettling. Weekes understands the mechanics of horror, and works closely with composer Roque Baños and cinematographer Jo Willems to construct a genuinely creepy horror. Weekes makes excellent use of negative space and framing to make the audience uncomfortable, and generally does an excellent job with mounting tension and dread. His House is an impressive piece of horror, judged simply as a genre piece.

However, the film is also quite pointed and well-observed in its horror. His Horror riffs on the tropes and conventions of the familiar haunted house story, particularly as a metaphor for trauma. What elevates Weekes’ screenplay, from a premise by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, is an understanding that sometimes the ghosts that fill a haunted house arrive with the owners.

It is certainly a fixer-upper.

His House is a fairly straightforward allegory. Almost as soon as Bol and Rial move into the house, they come to realise that something else has taken up residence as well. There are shapes in the shadows, something in the walls. Repeatedly, the house itself seems to come apart, reality slipping into a state of dream or memory, as Bol and Rial are confronted with the horrors that they have repressed in trying to start a new life in a strange land.

His House is not particularly subtle in its metaphors. Bol tries to burns and destroy the objects that tie him to the life that he has escaped, while Rial fashions the beads from a child’s doll so that she might wear her guilt and shame around her neck. Survivor’s guilt haunts them, with a demon taunting, “Repay what you owe.” At one point, Rial draws attention to the inherent absurdity of the haunted house in which they have fount themselves. “After all we have endured, after all we’ve seen, what men can do, you think is bumps in the night that scare me?” she asks.

Making a meal of it.

His House works because virtually every aspect of the production aligns perfectly. Weekes has a very strong visual sensibility, working with art directors Thalia Ecclestone and Matt Fraser to create a suitably uncanny environment. At various points in the story, the house itself seems to decay and crumble around Bol and Rial, as if these decrepit walls are not enough to hold out the horrors beyond. Weekes manages to create a palpable sense of the unnatural within this domestic setting.

The house itself is shrewdly positioned within the uncanny valley; it is just real enough to ground the story in a recognisable reality, but also just heightened enough that the house becomes a place where the laws of reality can bend and distort. The house even seems organic, wallpaper peeling like skin from some horrific wound and rot in the broken drywall looking like gangrene festering around the edges of some monstrous scab.

Holding it together.

His House is visually striking, built around a number of memorable images. At one point, as Bol and Rial dine quietly together in their kitchen, is seems as though the entire seating area is drifting across the Mediterranean at dusk. At another point, the floor seems to be swallowed by a sink hole. Working with cinematographer Jo Willems, Weekes gives the film of a waking nightmare, as if glimpsed through the eyes of an insomniac witnessing the blurring of reality and fantasy around them.

Of course, His House works even beyond the straightforward mechanics of horror filmmaking. Weekes’ script is economical, but effective. It is genuinely emotionally harrowing, particularly during an extended third act sequence that swaps the abstract monsters lurking in the shadows for an altogether different set of horrors. His House never over-explains itself or over-elaborates, trusting its cast, its director and its audience to understand the forces at play.

Property prices are the real horror here.

Bol and Rial are compelling characters, fleshed out through clever writing and developed through nuanced performances from Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku. Much of His House is given to Dirisu and Mosaku navigating this strange environment, and the film wouldn’t work without two performers capable of carrying the emotional weight that the script demands. Even the characters at the periphery of the story feel surprisingly nuanced, such as their caseworker Mark, played by Matt Smith as a bundle of quietly simmering resentment behind an accommodating facade.

However, perhaps the film’s most effective trick is its most basic one, the canny inversion of the familiar horror premise. So much horror is based around fear of the outsider. His House instead becomes a story about the fears of the outsiders. It is not the story of the nightmare of something outside coming in, but instead the horror of what it must feel like to be an outsider arriving in a world that is completely alien in its values and often hostile in its attitude.

“Are you a migrant or a mican’t?”

His House is a horror story told from the perspective of immigrants, capturing the tension between the demand to assimilate and the necessity of retaining integrity. This is the central conflict between Bol and Rial. “We do not belong here,” Rial warns Bol. “We are not like them.” Bol perhaps understands this, but is not moved by it. Instead, he argues, “We can be.” Bol throws himself into the British way of life, sniffing biscuits at a pub while singing along with the football chants. Rial is less willing to give up that part of who she is.

Similarly, the movie inverts the other core assumption of the haunted house story, the idea that monsters and demons are waiting in the darkness to be unearthed. His House understands that the many of the horrors of contemporary Britain must seem trite or amusing to people who have lived through horrors like Rial and Bol. The house might be dilapidated and falling to pieces before Rial and Bol move in, but is not actually haunted until the couple bring their baggage with them. “Your ghosts follow you,” Rial explains. “They never leave you. They live with you.”

These are small touches, but they speak to the skill with which His House is crafted and the depth its understanding of the genre. His House is a confident, impressive and harrowing debut from a very promising young filmmaker.

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