Out of the frying pan, into the fire; out of the fire, into the hellish, demonic inferno of a depressed British low-income housing estate. For husband-and-wife Sudanese refugees Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), every stage of their journey from their war-torn African village hometown to the dehumanizing limbo of a U.K. detention center via a perilous ocean crossing that claims the life of their little girl, seems progressively more fraught than the last. But in writer-director Remi Weekes’ debut feature, a potent if unbalanced mashup of social-issues polemic and haunted-house horror, it’s the final move — the one that should at last deliver them from evil — that cues the greatest evil of all.
Beautifully played by Dirisu and Mosaku, who bring a grounded, emotional sureness to the depiction of a real marriage crumbling under the most surreal of circumstances, the couple arrive at their newly billeted council house with hopeful hearts. And though the ugly home, shown to them with casual brusqueness by their hassled case worker (Matt Smith) is dirty and reeking — the cheap walls pocked with stains and the wiring given to blowing lightbulbs — they try to remain optimistic. As Bol is fond of insisting, this is their fresh start (“We will be new here”) and they must do whatever it takes to secure their citizenship and settle into this new life. They must mind their manners, keep their heads down and be the “good ones” Bol frequently, fervently assures the blank-faced authorities they are. But soon they’re both experiencing unaccountable horrors in the house, murderous apparitions that clamber out of the rotting walls and often take the form of a twisted version of the little girl they swore to protect and could not.
One of the cleverest aspects of Weekes’ central premise is how it gets around the oldest question posed by the haunted house genre: “Why don’t they just leave?” Here among the draconian lists of prohibitions and instructions that Bol and Rial must obey to the letter (including the paradoxical cruelty of being expected to assimilate into a community where they’re ordered not to seek work and to subsist solely on a small government handout) is that they must live where they’re told to. An Englishman’s home is his castle, but an immigrant’s is his prison. So when Bol, bleeding and covered in scratches, is finally desperate enough to gently request a move, he’s greeted with bureaucratic resistance and open hostility. “It’s bigger than my house” mutters one of the social workers darkly; in this world, the onus on the “good immigrant” is to be grateful for anything, no matter how unsuitable. Any complaint, however reasonable, is looked on as rocking the boat — and Bol and Rial are already haunted by the memory of what happens when boats are rocked.
As powerful as this melding of themes is — the terrors of the new and unfamiliar compounded by visits from the restive ghosts of the old country, and the various types of survivor’s guilt a refugee may feel — Weekes’ horror filmmaking can’t quite keep up. After a few good creepy scares earlier on, the scenes of supernatural menace start to seem a bit rote, leading up to a denouement that’s more interesting for how it affects Bol and Rial’s fractured relationship than for what the menace actually is, or how it might be defeated.
Yet in its real-world sections, whether in gray, unwelcoming England, perfectly captured in DP Jo Willems’ deliberately muted palette and unromantic framing, or during the flashbacks to the massacres from which they have fled, “His House” is twisty, absorbing and full of high drama. Weekes’ observant script illustrates in pointed yet unforced digressions the complexity and confusion of refugee life: Bol and Rial literally don’t know where they are — they travelled at night, and no one ever told them what part of England they’re in, if it’s even still London. Rial, left rather inexplicably alone by Bol’s daytime wanderings, does eventually venture out, only to get lost in the dingy maze of tract housing and racially abused by some local black kids. And there’s something so heartbreaking about Bol bursting with pride that he can fit in briefly at the pub when he sings along to a soccer song (such is the unifying power of Peter Crouch). An uneven but impressive debut, “His House” is at its most persuasively terrifying when it gets out of the house and into the existential terror of reality. Out there are aspects of the refugee experience that contain greater horrors and mortifications than all the blackening plaster, childish ghostly humming and skittering presences in the walls could ever hope to suggest.