Remi Weekes' Horror Drama (currently on Netflix) is an engrossing exploration of survivors guilt and the hardships faced by a couple seeking asylum in the U.K.
Note: This post contains details of the film's plot so if you have not seen the film and do not want spoilers you have been warned!
His House (2020) written and directed by Remi Weekes sees refugee couple Bol and Rial (played by Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku) escape war-torn South Sudan to seek asylum in the U.K. Staying in England is conditional and precarious, not made any easier by the cold reception from their neighbours and the malevolent force living in their new dilapidated home. While billed as a horror film (and justly so) it is the drama and the surreal memory/dream-like sequences probing into the couple’s lived experiences which make this film so compelling. While the supernatural horror is an element which drives the narrative forward it is not the sole focus of the film. Escaping Sudan with their lives and losing their daughter Nyagak at sea are horrors which the couple have already lived, and the film explores the complexities of acknowledging and confronting this trauma.
Unlike many ‘haunted house’ films where much of the plot is given to trying to understand the supernatural threat (The Sentinel (1977), The Amityville Horror (2005) The Conjuring (2013) etc. ), Rial is quickly able to explain what is happening. The Apeth - or night witch - has followed them to hold Bol accountable for his misdeeds. The ways in which Rial and Bol chose to deal with this haunting reflect their different approaches to dealing with their loss and guilt.
The Threat of 'Otherness'
Bol, while acutely feeling the threat of the Apeth in the house, seems somewhat oblivious to the threat posed by being the ‘other’ in this inhospitable unspecified English town. There is a sense that this reception could be commonplace - "[Are we] in London?’"Bol asks a barber. "Why not?" is his reply. Their housing officer Mark (played by Matt Smith) urges Bol at the beginning of the film to ‘be one of the good ones’, unsubtly alluding to the fact that the best they can hope for is to be tolerated rather than welcomed.
Bol’s approach to deal with the trauma they have experienced is to try to forget it. He attempts to replace it by replicating the norms, cultures and image of their new town. In a clothes shop Bol buys the same clothes as the smiling family on the in-store advertisement. At the same time he is oblivious to the security guard following him around the shop. When a man outside a church shouts brashly "You one of them refugees? I've got something for you." there is a brief feeling of mistrust and fear that this man poses a threat.
There is a similar sense of impending threat when Rial decides to leave the house. When looking for the GP surgery she becomes lost in the myriad of alleys surrounding the housing estate. As eerie music builds a dog barks behind a fence and we hear a woman shouting, her journey is punctuated by the rhythmic thump of a child kicking a football against a wall. As an audience you believe that surely danger lies around the next corner.
Rial also pushes back against Bol’s attempts to disregard their past and move on. She only briefly wears the new advertisement- inspired clothes he has bought for her, looking noticeably uncomfortable as she does so. She also fights to hold on to physical mementos owned by Nyagak. She openly confronts Bol about the struggles of being asylum seekers in this new town,
"And you… you still idolise them. You beg them, and then you thank them for the unseasoned scraps they throw at us. You eat them up." - Rial to Bol
The extent of the couple's trauma is alluded to through brief opening scenes, yet only fully explored through a series of surreal memory-scapes. After the revelation of Nyagak’s true parenthood and how Bol used her to secure their passage to the U.K, certain scenes in the film are given new meaning. Bol’s haste to cover Rial’s mouth when she uses the word 'daughter' or his assertion that U.K life will work out because they could ‘start a family’.
When Bol is directly confronted by the Apeth he chides "You are just a bag of tricks. Make yourself at home. Pictures cannot hurt me", yet his nightmares of their traumatic sea crossing and hands forcing his head to confront the image of Nyagak prove otherwise.
In an impactful scene, we see how Rial survived a mass shooting in a classroom by hiding in a cabinet. As she speaks with the ghosts of those who died they force her to come to terms with the fact that she doesn't, and never did, have a daughter.
His House is more than just a haunted house horror film. Weekes cleverly uses the genre as a tool to explore themes of asylum, home, loss and guilt but does not rely on the supernatural as the only driving force of the narrative. In the end Rial and Bol must continue to live with the ghosts of their past - both figuratively and literally. There is no clean break or fairy tale fresh start for the couple and the conclusion of the film illustrates how they will be reminded of their decisions daily - how they survived and the fact that so many they knew did not. For Bol, he acknowledges what he has done, for Rial, she commits to trying to move on.
Mark: "Do you still see her?" Bol: "Nyagak? The ghosts follow you. They never leave. They live with you. But when I let them in, I could start to face myself.” Rial: “This is our home."