Since the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017, a burgeoning emphasis has been placed on the concept of the ‘social thriller’, a sub-genre predicated on the examination and critique of abstract pathologies. As Mr Peele himself has defined it, this consists of thriller and horror movies where the ultimate villain is actually the destructive edicts of a toxically dysfunctional society. His own acclaimed debut horrifically satirised a certain condescending obsession-cum-inferiority complex among white middle-class liberals, but the notion of a suspenseful and/or scary movie doubling as a message picture considerably predates it.
Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things shone a light on the precariousness of life as an undocumented asylum seeker against the sinister backdrop of London’s illegal organ trade. Many years before that, The Stepford Wives offered an unforgettably disturbing lampoon of society as psychopathic, control-freak misogynists would have it, and way back in 1961, Basil Dearden’s neo-noir Victim featured the first on-screen use of the term ‘homosexual’ and dealt with a cruel blackmail plot motivated by degenerate avarice and homophobia. As disparate as all of these nail-biters might initially appear, they all possess one unifying theme: people facing systematic hardship because of some arbitrary category they can be fitted into.
A brand new addition to this mould of thought-provoking nerve-janglers is Remi Weekes’ His House, a British frightener that premiered on Netflix last Friday. With its commentary on migrant life, cultural superstition, the patronising officiousness and hostility of Home Office bureaucrats and Little Englanders and, crucially, the ambiguously metaphorical demons of the past, His House is a taut, smart, sad and very creepy riff on certain issues.
Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are South Sudanese nationals who brave a treacherous passage across the Mediterranean Sea on an overcrowded boat, desperate to escape the worsening armed conflict of their homeland. We discover that this perilous journey has, unsurprisingly, come with some devastating pitfalls: their daughter Nyagak (Malaika Abigaba) lost her life during the voyage, as did many others. When they finally reach British shores, they are promptly sent to an immigration detention centre.
After several months at the centre, the couple is brought before a review board and informed that they have been granted asylum albeit with a probationary period. The discourteous and indifferent officials tersely state that they are not entirely out of the woods and there are certain rules to strictly adhere to, including no undocumented employment or anything that could be construed as defacement of the property. Arriving at a thoroughly grotty abode in the London suburbs, Bol & Rial are met by caseworker Mark (Matt Smith) an equally aloof suit who tells the couple, with an air of supercilious flippancy, that he ‘hopes they’re two of the good ones’.
As they settle into the home, Bol starts to notice that a pest infestation and manky wallpaper is the least of their concerns. Scuttling, sudden bangs and distant voices begin to follow him around the house, supplemented by increasingly horrific apparitions of Nyagak and other deceased refugees in tribal masks and paint, the sightings increasing in intensity as the phantoms attempt to injure or possibly kill Bol. Perturbed, he nevertheless insists that the trauma of uprooting themselves and losing their child has begun to manifest as hallucinations, but Rial is not at all convinced.
Believing that they have been followed from South Sudan by a ‘night witch’, Rial relates the story of a thief back home who unwittingly stole from one of these beings and was relentlessly attacked by ghosts from within his own walls as a punishment. She asserts that they have some kind of sin to atone for or debt to repay, demanding that Bol acknowledge this and attempt to square himself with the witch so that they might be left in peace. Dismissing this as Rial’s delusional grief, Bol nevertheless worsens in his mental state, going so far as to set fire to an abundance of the couple’s belongings and incoherently pleading with Mark to relocate them as this house is ‘too strange’. What have these two done to provoke such a merciless haunting and, more pressingly, will they ever be able to defeat it?
The most striking element of His House is that, whilst undoubtedly a horror film, it ultimately serves as a plaintive and confrontational illustration of the desperation and sacrifice that marks an escape from international war zones. Bol & Rial are tired and in mourning, but this doesn’t impede their elation at being given another chance to make a life for themselves. Sadly and predictably, this is met with a resolute lack of empathy from several players, including an irritatingly nosey and creepy middle-aged woman living next door and a group of schoolkids who bullyingly mock Rial’s accent when she asks for help locating an address (a scene I found so enraging that I wanted to leap through the screen).
There is also something of a rift that develops between the couple, Rial retaining the traditional dress sense of her tribe and speaking in her native tongue, Bol committed to fitting in with his surroundings and letting go (an equally frustrating sequence involves him going into a clothes shop to buy some typically ‘English’ attire and an immediately suspicious security guard). It isn’t without levity though, there are key moments of mirth afoot here, including the opening sequence where Bol wakes up and explains that he was dreaming about their wedding day, Rial replying ”Well, that explains all of the screaming”, or, having been startled by ghostly visions emanating from a hole in the wall, Bol mutters ”Strange country”. The chemistry is palpable, compounding the fear we feel for the two.
The cinematography by Joe Willems is of a deftly economic and claustrophobic nature, the grey through-window shots of suburban English streets and dimly-lit, tension-fraught living room sequences respectively reminding me of works such as Kill List and Under The Shadow, two other lauded cerebral horrors, the latter of the two also dealing with war-torn nations and culture-specific paranormal phenomena. Gavin Cullen’s shrieking and threatening score complements the knife-edge tension that we feel as the couple are besieged by these spectral menaces, but the film never loses its trajectory of commenting on the untold pain of individuals like Bol & Rial. Although it has its fair share of jump moments and the creature design is pretty frightening, I received the film’s spooky elements as darkly melancholic representations of guilt and loss as opposed to outright pants-wetting scares. Or, in other words, I felt more sad than terrified, but as far as I’m concerned, it is only appropriate.
At 93 minutes, His House is a short affair that effectively delivers chills, shocking twists and some thoughtful deliberation on the plight of people in one of the most disadvantaged segments of the social strata. Well acted and imaginatively written, it takes an emotional toll while still retaining a modicum of hope (the final shot lingers for many good reasons) and its musings on assimilation, the context and consequences of impulsive action and self-reckoning are sufficient to stay with you without much heavy-handedness. Certainly one of the better offerings on Netflix in a long while.