Making the jump from a well-regarded, four-minute short to a feature-length film can be a daunting prospect for any filmmaker, but for Remi Weekes, the director of fest favourite Tickle Monster, the move to feature-length filmmaking was less a jump than the next step on what should be a long, impressive career. Weekes’ feature-length debut, His House, a multi-layered British-set haunted house film that skillfully weaves socio-political commentary, an engrossing character study, and unnerving visual frights, looks and sounds less like a first-timer’s attempt at creating a show-reel for his next, hoped-for feature-length film than the work of a seasoned professional deeply conversant in genre conventions, tropes, and even cliches and subverting them at every turn, teasing out more than just chills or scares, but politically engaged meaning as well.
Weekes centers His House on a South Sudanese refugee couple, Bol Majur (Sope Dirisu) and his wife, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), newly arrived in the U.K. after a perilous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea that left them childless. Their only daughter, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba), perished when their overloaded, unseaworthy boat capsized during rough seas. Both Bol and Rial are understandably tormented by the loss of their daughter. Their individual and collective trauma, however, runs much deeper than Nyagak’s loss. It runs not only to the people (friends, family, acquaintances) they left behind in war-torn South Sudan but to everything they experienced firsthand (deprivation, violence, mass death). The ghosts they bring with them from South Sudan are, as expected, figurative (psychological), and quite possibly real (corporeal).
Supernatural horror as a History Lesson
In just a few, devastating broad strokes, Weekes highlights how the UK, once an empire that subjugated millions, if not tens of millions, treats refugees from its former colonies. Bol and Rial are treated, if not with contempt or disgust, then with indifference and apathy. The British bureaucrats at their detention hearing can barely feign interest in Bol and Rial’s plight or what will happen to them, though they’re seemingly eager to remove Bol and Rial from their care (two fewer burdens on their minds or consciences), almost immediately shunting them to a dilapidated, tattered two-floor home on a neglected, blighted block surrounded by high-rise buildings containing England’s poorest and most easily ignored, where Bol and Rial, essentially prisoners in someone else’s home, await the final disposition of their asylum case.
Alone, isolated, and disoriented by their surroundings, Bol and Rial take different, eventually conflicting approaches to their new home. Bol gets a haircut and attempts to assimilate himself with local European football fans, while Rial remains mostly at home, venturing out only to obtain supplies drawn from their miserly weekly allowance. Rial’s first attempt almost ends badly. Turned around and confused by buildings and streets that all look alike, Rial tries to get aid from several boys, assuming their shared skin colour means they’ll be more generous and helpful. As she quickly learns, she’s wrong, spotlighting yet another way that refugees or immigrants and their presumably acculturated children can and do often respond to each other with varying levels of internalized xenophobia.
Haunted House Grooves
Weekes’ film eventually settles into a more conventional haunted house groove with Bol, discovering that keeping his hands and body busy with home repairs can’t keep his inner demons away, let alone from hiding in the walls or occasionally making their terrifying presence known by appearing where he (and we) least expect them. For the more traditionally minded Rial, the cause of their distress isn’t psychological; it’s supernatural (an “abeth” or “night witch”) they’ve managed to import from South Sudan. Bol and Rial represent the usual skeptic/believer dynamic, though, in Bol’s case, he tries to downplay Rial’s concerns by claiming they’re simply cursed and not haunted by ghosts or demons.
As the spirit-powered house turns on Bol and Rial, the scares are certainly plentiful in the last stretch, if a bit predictable, though Weekes’ exploits every aspect of the haunted house sub-genre, turning, as expected, the house into a malevolent character of its own, while also tying the multiplying spectres Bol and Rial experience to their shared past in South Sudan and their non-Western cultural traditions. Less of a misstep than borderline unnecessary, Weekes’ throws in a third-act twist that’s meant to change how we perceive Bol and Rial and the desperate choices they made under extreme duress to escape South Sudan. That we don’t is a testament to the complex, nuanced characters Weekes created along with Dirisu and Mosaku’s deeply felt, grounded performances as Weekes’ central characters.