With his striking debut feature His House, British writer-director Remi Weekes has constructed a horror film that takes the overstuffed and overfamiliar haunted house subgenre and briefly revitalises it. He combines elements that are fresh and others that are familiar to create both a humanising story of immigration and an unsettling, old-fashioned tale of a haunting, neatly oscillating between the two. It’s a confident and compelling statement of intent from a young, ambitious film-maker and it’s no surprise that Netflix sneaked in before Sundance kicked off to buy the rights.
For the first 20 minutes, His House plays less like a supernatural horror and more like a grounded human drama, telling the plight of a Sudanese family seeking asylum in the UK. Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) risked everything to take a nighttime boat journey to safety, or at least the dream of safety away from violent conflict back home. But an accident at sea has them arriving on British shores grieving the loss of their daughter. After an unspecified time at a detention centre, they’re granted their own house, far from London and in a grimy state of disrepair, but a house nonetheless and one that’s theirs to turn into a home. Initial relief slowly turns to fear however as they start to believe they’re not alone.
Setting his film in an unspecified part of England, Weekes makes life for the couple as scary out of the house as it is inside. Their brief encounters with the outside world are mostly harsh and unforgiving, from open to casual racism, making any sort of adjustment seem impossible. But Weekes also avoids leaning into caricature, especially with Matt Smith’s empathetic housing officer who could have so easily been painted as a villain. We’re in fantastical territory but Weekes keeps one foot in the real world throughout. The haunting that takes place is one that’s tied to something that feels tangible, not only grief over the death of their daughter but the devastating weight of survivor’s guilt, for the ones that were left behind or lost along the way.
While at times Weekes does rely on some tired scare tactics and an often ineffective score, he also has some effectively nasty tricks up his sleeve, including a killer twist that adds further poignancy to the story and an intriguing backstory for the force that plagues the couple. He also dabbles with some surrealist imagery, with mixed results, but it’s refreshing to see a horror film that doesn’t take the easy route by settling into a tried-and-tested formula. It’s the work of someone with a lot to say and a lot to show, hinting at a promising career both in and out of the genre.
There are strong performances from Dirisu and Mosaku, acing roles of great technical and emotional difficulty, securing our investment in their journey, one that has greater stakes than the average haunted house horror. At a tight 93 minutes, Weekes knows how to pace his story with the assurance of a film-maker with far more experience, a tenacious calling card that should pique the interest of observant Hollywood execs as it simultaneously scares its way into your house when it lands on Netflix.
His House is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be available on Netflix later this year