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Ghosts of the past made present – ‘His House’

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There’s a turn of phrase that has been floating around out there in the zeitgeist for a few years about which I have conflicted feelings. “Elevated horror” is a term that is being used to describe movies that incorporate horror elements and tropes while ostensibly being above the genre itself.

Honestly – I don’t care for it.

Those films and filmmakers – the Ari Asters and Jordan Peeles and Robert Eggers – don’t need any qualifiers; the notion that a horror movie is somehow unable to also be an artistically impactful film is foolish on its face. I respect the desire for a shorthand, but come on – great horror is great art, full stop.

This brings us to “His House,” a new film streaming on Netflix. Written and directed by debut feature filmmaker Remi Weekes, it’s a movie that invites that sort of cinephile labeling, bringing together exceptionally executed scares with engaging ideas and social commentary. It invites it, but it doesn’t need it.

It doesn’t need it because “His House” succeeds on its merits. It is a taut, tense haunted house horror thriller, packed with unsettling images and some incredible scares. It is also a sharp and incisive deconstructive commentary on the dehumanizing nature of the refugee experience. And it is wildly effective from both perspectives. This is a bordering-on-brilliant work of horror filmmaking, marrying the trappings of the genre with nuanced messaging regarding a very complex issue.

So yeah – it’s REALLY good.

Bol (Sope Dirisu, TV’s “Gangs of London”) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku, TV’s “Lovecraft Country”) are fleeing war-torn South Sudan, their daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba in her feature debut) in tow. In the process of crossing the Mediterranean in an overcrowded raft, an accident takes place; many of those onboard are lost at sea … Nyagak among them.

Bol and Rial spend several months in detention before ultimately being processed and granted probational asylum. They’re delivered to a rundown house at the outskirts of London, where they’re met by their case worker Mark (Matt Smith, “Official Secrets”), who helps them move in.

Bol tries to assimilate, getting out into the community and changing the way he dresses and behaves; he tries to get Rial to join him in doing so. It’s a struggle for both of them; they both have difficulty in connecting with their new surroundings. They’re surrounded by suspicion, leaving them disoriented and discomfited.

But it isn’t long before things start to get a little strange in their new home. Both of them start seeing … things. Neither is initially sure what they’re experiencing, but something is very wrong.

It’s Rial who first realizes what’s happening – the evil presence is a creature known as an apeth, or night witch. This monstrous being is possessed of great power … and it wants something. Rial makes mention of a debt that is owed and must be repaid, though it’s unclear what the debt actually is. Bol, on the other hand, thinks that they are under the sway of a more conventional curse.

As the days pass, the sinister happenings grow in both frequency and intensity. Bol and Rial must decide just how much they are willing to endure – and how far they’re willing to go – to keep one another safe in the face of this unknown evil.

“His House” is a remarkable feat of filmmaking, a movie that manages to be both an exceptional straight-up haunted house movie AND a surprisingly effective exploration of the othering that comes from the refugee experience. There’s plenty of one or the other out there, but to execute both at this high a level is impressive as hell – especially when you take into account that Remi Weekes is a first-time feature filmmaker. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I don’t think anyone has set the horror/social commentary bar this high their first time out since Jordan Peele dropped “Get Out.” Seriously – this movie is THAT good.

It’s a movie that is utterly packed with striking powerful images. Whether we’re dropped into the lurid and visceral house of horrors or walking alongside a family seeking to escape the real-life horrors of a war-torn homeland, we’re gifted with a multitude of moments that will carve themselves indelibly into your memory. Weekes brings a distinctive visual style and a clear command of tone and tension to the screen, often leaving the audience gasping. The pacing is spot on and the narrative takes complex paths without ever crossing the line into convolution.

Dirisu and Mosaku give remarkable performances – performances that, as good as they are individually, somehow become exponentially better when put together. Dirisu perfectly captures the idea of desperately seeking to assimilate, yet being unprepared to do so. Mosaku’s is the more insular turn, though she manages to project a massive sadness. The big moments are great, yes, but it’s the smaller snippets where we see just how powerful these performers are. Both Dirisu and Mosaku are capable of conveying shocking emotional depth wordlessly, their eyes projecting waves of feeling that require no words to translate. While there are some other quality performances – Smith manages to squeeze a surprise or two into his turn, for instance – for intents and purposes, this is a two-hander … and both players are holding fantastic cards.

If you want to call “His House” elevated horror, I can’t stop you, but to my mind, this film illustrates the reason why the term exists while also proving it unnecessary. You can consume this movie solely as a pure haunted house thriller and really dig it. You can consume it primarily as an allegory for refugees and the pains of assimilation and really dig it. The fact that it works both ways tells you everything you need to know about just how good it is.

This is a very scary, very smart movie – one that will linger long after the credits have rolled.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 02 November 2020 12:10

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