His House (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★
You can tell a movie is coming from a specific perspective when every single white folk is captured giving a certain look to Rial and Bol (Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu), South Sudanese refugees who must prove to the UK government that they can adapt and assimilate. They must abide by three rules: report weekly, without fail, to their case worker (Matt Smith); live off a weekly allowance of seventy pounds without getting full-time or part-time jobs for extra income; and live in a house chosen by the government. Failure to follow these rules would risk their status as refugees and therefore their chance of becoming British citizens. The third rule is especially problematic for Mr. and Mrs. Majur because it appears as though their new home is haunted. It begins with whisperings and scratchings in the walls.
It sounds like a typical ghost story, but it isn’t. Writer-director Remi Weekes broaches concepts like race, ethnicity, culture, identity, color of one’s skin, among others, and gives them workable definitions. I appreciated the fact that he trusts viewers are intelligent and curious enough to wade through these ideas and then try to make sense how or why these are critical to the story. It is one thing to show that a ghost is a metaphor for our haunted pasts. It is another to make a statement that sometimes a ghost is born of our own creations. Then it begs the question: Because it is a part of us, how can it be defeated? Or can it be overcome? In terms of plot, the ending is straightforward. But in terms of character, the ending is subtle. Here is a horror film that goes beyond the gut experience; it asks that we be aware of its themes.
Scares are strong in that every confrontation with an apparition is an invitation. For example, a character may be looking at a curious hole in the wall. He decides to explore, put his hand or arm inside it with the hope of grabbing onto something. Behind him the light flickers and grows dark. He isn’t aware of the change from a few feet away. So typical of modern horror pictures is to go for a jump scare. Boo! The ghost appears and the character is startled. End scene. Cue our laugh or sigh of relief. Not here. The ghost appears from behind. We are startled due to its terrific placement and timing. But the character does not see it; he is too busy examining the hole. The fact that we are aware of the threat but the protagonist does not is the very definition of suspense. I think Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud and regaled by this chiller.
Notice, too, that horror here is not always reliant upon menace. The majority of the picture may unfold inside a house, but the screenplay’s imagination tends to outmuscle the four walls. We get a chance to look inside dreams, memories, and imaginings. Sometimes these are mixed together and it is a challenge to untangle them. More impressive, on occasion it is not necessary to untwine them because the point is meant to appeal to big emotions rather than pragmatism. On other occasions, a character getting lost in her new neighborhood is the horror itself. No need to employ shapes in the night. There is a level of freedom here that so many filmmakers can learn from. And I hope they do.
Clearly, Weekes has sculpted an impressive debut film. Another positive trait: As a naturalized U.S. citizen, I believe that other immigrants will appreciate this film on a level that non-immigrants will not, especially if an immigrant is a person of color. This claim isn’t meant to be flippant or dismissive; it just is. Because the writer-director is courageous enough to be highly specific in regards to the immigrant characters’ experiences in a country (and with people) that is foreign to them, it paves the way for a superior work, one that is filled to brim with sharp angles.