His House Puts a Fresh Coat of Terror on the Haunting Genre

His House Puts a Fresh Coat of Terror on the Haunting Genre
Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

After barely escaping the horrors of war in South Sudan, Rial (Lovecraft Country’s Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) Majul have made it all the way to London and into their first home. But their apparent good fortune has a terrifying downside, as Remi Weekes’ chilling His House soon reveals.

In any film about a haunted house, the story has to explain why the people don’t just move immediately when things take a turn for the dangerously spooky. In Poltergeist, for instance, the Freelings can’t flee until they get their ghost-napped daughter back. More often, though, the circumstances are economical — like the family in The Amityville Horror, who’ve sunk every penny of their savings into what they thought would be their dream home. The Majuls have an even more extreme version of that dilemma; due to their immigration status, they’re not allowed to live anyplace but the home that’s been assigned to them.

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Though their not-unsympathetic caseworker, Mark (Doctor Who’s Matt Smith), emphasises how lucky they are to get an entire flat to themselves (it’s “bigger than my house,” he tells them), the place has quite obviously been abandoned for some time; it’s grimy, the lights don’t work, there’s trash everywhere, and the neighbourhood kids have been using its yard as an on-the-go toilet. Still, Rial and Bol are thrilled, figuring they can fix up the place while they settle into their new lives. “We will be new here,” Bol says. “Born again,” his wife agrees.

Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Netflix

Peace proves short-lived, however, and distressing echoes of their recent past soon catch up to them. First, it’s odd noises, then whispers, then apparitions that are terrifying both because, well, they’re angry ghouls that suddenly lurch out of the shadows but also because of who and what they represent.

Tapping into the experiences of a refugee couple brings a freshness to the well-worn haunted-house genre — director Weekes wrote the screenplay from a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables — and while His House leans rather heavily into its central metaphor, it works because the characters are so heart-wrenchingly complex, and the performances so emotionally nuanced. In flashbacks, we see what Rial and Bol endured in the lead-up to their escape from South Sudan, as well as the perilous journey itself; their safe arrival in England is a victory, but it also carries with it tremendous survivor’s guilt as well as mountains of post-traumatic stress. Even before they move into Casa Bad Vibes, Bol endures nightmares that are basically instant replays of his darkest memories.

Even worse, a rift begins to grow between the couple over how they’re adjusting to life in London. Bol is eager to fit in and be “one of the good ones,” as Mark bluntly puts it, while Rial is more cautious. While most of His House takes place inside the sinister flat, Weekes does include a few scenes to show that this not-so-warm welcome extends beyond its walls. In a clothing store, we see a security guard hovering closely behind Bol — never approaching him directly, but there’s no mistaking what’s going on. When Rial gets turned around in her housing complex, which seems to be populated mostly by glaring white people, she’s relieved to spot a group of Black teens. But when she approaches them for directions, they immediately make fun of her. “We’re not like them,” she tells Bol, meaning all the non-refugees around them. “We could be,” he insists.

As supernatural movies often remind us, evil spirits are fond of latching onto people who are already in a vulnerable state. For a while, His House seems like it’s going to be one of those movies where you’re not sure if the ghosts are real, or just exist in Bol and Rial’s exhausted minds. That becomes less important as the story progresses, especially after Rial delivers the line that ties the whole movie together: “After all we’ve endured, after what we have seen, what men can do — you think it is bumps in the night that frighten me?” While “humans are the real monsters” is, again, a very common refrain in horror, it’s deployed with unusual heft in service of this specific, precisely realised story.

His House hits Netflix today.