We don’t see much of Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial’s (Wunmi Mosaku) harrowing journey from war-torn South Sudan to whatever cold pocket of Britain this pair of asylum-seekers hopes to call their new home, just enough to wonder if the various indignities they’re sure to suffer in the country that once colonized their own could possibly be worse or more inhumane than the process of getting there. After escaping from the militias who butchered their families and surviving the perilous sea crossing that claimed their daughter’s young life, Bol and Rial are understandably blank and undaunted by the callousness of the official who conducts their exit interview at the detention center — he’s cold, but death is colder.
The couple is unbothered when a brusque social worker (“The Crown” star Matt Smith) shows them around the dilapidated council estate where they’ll be living until the government decides if they can stay, and they don’t flinch when given the impossible task of assimilating into a society in which they aren’t allowed to work. “Be one of the good ones” Smith offers with his usual chinny sneer, a piece of advice that’s almost as helpful as his recommendation not to worry about the smell of their temporary new home.
Needless to say, Bol and Rial don’t worry about the smell. Or fret over their unfriendly neighbors. They don’t even seem concerned about the spirit who bumps around their dingy flat at night and jolts us with drowned visions of the couple’s daughter. Not at first, anyway. Some people have seen too much to be scared of the dark; some people are too haunted to live in any other kind of house. But the ghosts you bring with you are always more frightening than the ghosts that belong somewhere else, and it’s only a matter of time before Rial starts to question Bol’s mantra that “We will be new here. Born again.”
One of the best debuts of the year, Remi Weekes’ shrewd, tender, and sometimes terrifying “His House” begins with a clever premise — the immigrant experience as a horror movie — and expands on that idea in knowing and unexpected ways. Whereas a lesser film might have condescended to these characters and mined easy scares from the indignities of the assimilation process, Weekes’ dingy chiller implicitly recognizes that life would be difficult for a grieving Black couple who show up in England with nothing but each other and a few trinkets to their names, and it never stops using its genre as a torch to illuminate the specific forms those shadowed difficulties might take.
Bol and Rial are a riveting but enigmatic pair. They’re strong, but it often sounds as if they’re trying to convince themselves of that when they speak (“This is our home,” Bol says ad infinitum, first as a declaration and then as a mantra). They’re grieving, but it often sounds as if their loss belongs to someone else, or perhaps just the people they used to be (“We can start a family,” Bol tells his wife). They’re in a country that owes them more than it’s willing to give, but Rial talks about their rotted turquoise flophouse as if they’ve stolen it, as epitomized by the curious scene where she tells her husband a folktale about a man who pilfered materials from a night witch, only to find that the witch would whisper behind the walls of any home he built with them.
Dirisu and Mosaku’s lucid but withholding performances make for two lead characters who are compellingly opaque in their own ways — impressive for a 93-minute horror movie that spends much of its time following Bol through conventional set pieces as he pokes around in the dark and tries to dodge the ghosts who jump out at him. As creatively staged as these sequences can be (enjoy solid practical effects, the best light switch business since “Lights Out,” and a climactic encounter that will make Guillermo del Toro giddy as hell), “His House” is most effective when it wanders outside.
Weekes’ conceit works best when shining a light on how the most vulnerable members of a society are those who can’t risk asking for help. Bol is seduced by the promise of a new life, only to spiral into a Babadook-like battle against the trauma that followed him across the world. The film’s most harrowing scene has nothing to do with ghosts; it finds Bol fraying apart as he visits the social worker and begs to be moved to an estate that isn’t in need of an exorcism, only to receive a bitter reminder that the authorities are looking for any excuse to deny someone a home. The desperate humanity of these moments stands in sharp contrast the numbing and increasingly ornate delusions that Bol suffers in his house (if “His House” even belongs to him), which threaten to drown the movie in empty gothic imagery before a devious twist redeems some of the film’s more unmoored passages.
Rial is less perplexed by the angry specters who live in the walls of their house (whose house, exactly?), and confronted by more practical horrors as a result — albeit ones textured with the eeriest of wrinkles. One sequence finds her getting lost in the purgatorial maze of her adopted neighborhood, a wandering spirit herself, before asking directions from three hostile Black teens who tell her to “go back to Africa.” Later, a visit to a clueless white doctor ends with Rial explaining the scars behind her survival, and indicating at the guilt that might have given rise to her ghosts.
It’s one of many effective ways that Weekes leverages the supernatural to convey the horrors of a process that’s all too real, the most striking of which is saved for last and salvages the movie from ceding too much ground to its demons. For all of its clumsiness and rookie missteps (which continue through the film’s gut-punch of a coda), “His House” is an urgent and spine-tingling ghost story about what it means to begin anew in a home that may not want you to live in it.
“His House” will be available to stream on Netflix beginning on Friday, October 30.