Director: Remi Weekes
Writer: Remi Weekes, Felicity Evans, Toby Venables
Producer: Edward King, Martin Gentles, Roy Lee, Aidan Elliott, Arnon Milchan
Stars: Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith
Sudanese refugees grieving the death of their daughter move into a UK home haunted by a witch who forces them to face their past.
Netflix¡¯s original horror movies are mostly mediocre on a good day and largely forgettable on the whole. For every surprise standout such as ¡°The Ritual¡± (review here), there must be at least a dozen duds like ¡°The Open House¡± (review here), ¡°The Silence¡± (review here), and too many more whose titles can¡¯t even be remembered.
The streaming giant¡¯s original films also have nearly no longevity, thanks to swift burials on overpopulated menus and notoriously poor marketing, if any at all. It¡¯s even harder for one of their features to get its head above drowning VOD waters when that movie features no big names or huge hooks. Frame the film around refugee issues, as ¡°His House¡± does, and you¡¯re all but guaranteed to alienate an average audience that would rather lounge around with a lark like ¡°Hubie Halloween.¡±
Even though I was aware of ¡°His House,¡± I ignored it for the reasons above. Fact of the matter is, Netflix movie reviews become wastelands of nonexistent clicks barely a week after release when viewers move on to the next shiny object du jour. Steep traffic drops unfortunately accompany films that are POC forward too, because the types of people who complain about Kelly Marie Tran¡¯s ¡°The Last Jedi¡± role being SJW pandering dismiss every story not centered on white men as woke propaganda force feeding some left wing liberal agenda. Frankly, I just didn¡¯t believe due attention would be paid to ¡°His House.¡±
Then praise for the movie started peppering my Twitter feed. A couple of critics, ones not prone to always liking everything, called ¡°His House¡± one of the best thrillers of the year. What really sold me was ¡°Tigers Are Not Afraid¡± (review here) director Issa Lopez tweeting that ¡°His House¡± was ¡°hands down the scariest movie I¡¯ve watched in 2020. And it tells a story that needs to be heard, about characters with no voice in the real world.¡± If anyone is an authority on high quality fright films doubling as commentary on cultural crises, it¡¯s Issa Lopez. When she recommends a movie as a must, you listen. I for one am glad I did.
I knew I was safe in director Remi Weekes¡¯ hands only three minutes into the movie. Following a flashback to their dangerous flight out of war-ravaged Sudan, we meet Bol and his wife Rial while they recover in a UK holding center. ¡°His House¡± creates complete characters with a simple three-sentence exchange. Actors Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku pile on the personality with sublime subtlety in their performances.
After he wakes from a nightmare about their escape, Rial asks Bol, ¡°What did you dream about?¡± Not wishing to upset her, Bol fibs, ¡°Our wedding day.¡± Rial cocks her head with an ¡®mmm hmm¡¯ look in her eyes and lets Bol off the hook with her quip, ¡°That explains the screams.¡±
Look at how much we learn here. Bol tasks himself with protecting his wife, but the reality is she¡¯s too intuitive for him to keep anything from her. She allows him to have his lie while reminding him she knows the truth. The resigned way Bol turns his head back to his pillow shows he¡¯s fully aware of this. The couple continues caressing each other after trading wry smiles. Despite their situation, they still hold on to humor. This single scene demonstrates the strength of their relationship with some foreshadowing about how this dynamic will come into play in the future. Love, laughter, fear, and distrust are all represented as ¡°His House¡± efficiently packs everything necessary to know about Bol and Rial into a minimal amount of time.
A social worker, Mark, places the couple in a government-owned house that¡¯s charitably describable as a fixer-upper. Mark is a nothing role, existing mainly to motivate a few points of plot progression. I¡¯m surprised to see Matt Smith, who headlined ¡°Doctor Who¡± and features in a number of notable movies, playing a part that could have gone to anyone really. Maybe Smith scouted the script and simply wanted to be part of a genre project with more meaning than most.
Although Smith¡¯s third-billed status ends up being negligible, contorting creature performer Javier Botet adds another memorable monster to his never-ending r¨¦sum¨¦. Botet plays an ¡°apeth,¡± a night witch of African legend who hauntingly harangues someone until amends are made for a misdeed. Bol and Rial have such a sin shading their past, and the apeth has followed them across the ocean to see that wrong righted.
This is how ¡°His House¡± becomes a double-sided analogy for displacement making people feel unwanted. While nosy neighbors and wannabe teen toughs invent various invectives to tell Bol and Rial to ¡°go back where they came from,¡± the entity haunting their new home repeatedly reminds them they are unwelcome using psychological torment. In front and behind, both naturally and supernaturally, Bol and Rial cannot find a safe space. Can you come up with a concept more terrifying than that?
Seen strictly as a ghost story, ¡°His House¡¯s¡± scares are rote, e.g. nightmarish visions, sudden spooks from the shadows, and so forth. Throughout these instances however, the movie¡¯s imagery remains alluring. Ghoulish figures of waterlogged corpses and demons in tribal masks supply arresting visuals. ¡°His House¡± tells its tale with conventional creeps, but does so through a distinctive lens that can¡¯t be ignored on a visceral or emotional level.
¡°His House¡± demonstrates the monumental value of what fresh voices bring to fiction that too often tolerates formula. You can spin a standard haunted house yarn like this one and still make a splash by letting unique people and perspectives provide the flavor. It¡¯s a bit ridiculous to strip ¡°His House¡± of its identity for a reductive anecdote, but there¡¯d be little reason to notice the film if it were just another frightening fable about a fractured family facing otherworldly evil. The movie isn¡¯t heavy handed about its message in any way that hinders its entertainment value as a haunter. But because it is actually about something socially relevant, ¡°His House¡¯s¡± sincerity notches it at a significant cut above similar stories in the same space.
Review Score: 80