All immigrants arrive in their new country with hope. Asylum-seekers, those leaving their homelands due to war or other upheavals, come bearing the heaviest load — they’re weighed down by palpable trauma. Even if they make it to a different country, their fate is in peril. The U.S., for example, granted asylum to just over 30% of applicants in 2019. During the same year, the UK’s acceptance rate was somewhat better, at 58%. But even asylum seekers who achieve refugee status have to abide by a set of draconian requirements, or risk deportation. The immigration system teems with inherent horrors, and Netflix’s new haunted-house film His House exposes many of them.
Bol (Sope Dirisu, AMC’s Gangs of London) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku, HBO’s Lovecraft Country) are refugees fleeing with their daughter from war-torn South Sudan. To escape, they first board the packed flatbed of a pickup truck, then brave storm-torn waters on an overstuffed motorboat. Though they survive the treacherous crossing, their daughter and many others do not. That pain haunts Bol and Rial. When they’re finally granted probational asylum in Britain, three months later, the government assigns them a shabby house on the outskirts of London. And then the ghosts of their past start coming to life. Remi Weekes’ feature directorial debut not only exposes the horrors of the immigration system, but mines survivor guilt for a clever, bone-chilling thriller.
The Sudanese couple are emblematic of the two paths immigrants are forced between in their new countries. Bol tries to assimilate. He sings football songs, asks Rial to use utensils rather than her hands when they eat, and even changes how he dresses, opening the film in a brown velvet shirt, and later converting to a bland grey polo. He wants to prove to the government that he and Rial are among “the good ones.” On the other hand, Rial clings to their culture. She retains their daughter’s necklace, dresses in colorful clothes, and rather than using a table, sits on the floor to eat. Their divergent reactions allow Weekes, through his taut script, to dig for future frights.
And the frights are many. Weekes’ thriller evokes the vague, unknown things that go bump in the night. For Bol and Rial, it begins with the sound of children snickering, and later the patter of their feet. So many ghost stories spend too long teasing scares. Weekes, on the other hand, without hesitation parades his horror, to hair-raising effect. He starts with fierce jump scares. The ghosts in His House mostly move either in the shadows, or behind the walls, so viewers hear them, but don’t see them until they attack. And they attack often. Weekes also relies on a cunning mixture of practical and visual effects: from the otherworldly heights the ghouls jump to plunge a knife into Bol, to images of decomposing faces, and the sea full of bodies Bol hallucinates. It’s a tactile supernatural violence.
Most haunted houses are of the gothic kind, or in the case of Paranormal Activity, smartly suburban. But the deteriorating edifice in His House subverts those expectations. The neighborhood’s junk — a couch, mattress, and broken patio chairs — litter the protagonists’ yard. Exposed wiring juts through holes in their home’s crumbling interior walls. Often the holes are filled by the faces of ghosts, a chilling practical effect. Bol and Rial have no landlord to make necessary repairs. Even their well-meaning probation officer Mark (Matt Smith, from Doctor Who and The Crown) offers punishment instead of help, threatening that any complaints about the house might hamper their asylum case. The setup is an ingenious reformulation of the old haunted-house trope that keeps a family from leaving a cursed dwelling. In His House, any attempts to secure new lodgings will be seen as a violation of Bol and Rial’s refugee status, and could result in deportation. It’s a familiar dynamic, but given a rare refocusing so it applies to a specific Black immigrant trauma.
But the house doesn’t just expose their loneliness and vulnerability to the legal system. It combines with their mundane yet threatening neighborhood to explain their mental state. In an ode to The Shining, for example, Rial leaves the couple’s home to visit her doctor. Disorientated by her new surroundings, she comes across a boy kicking a soccer ball against a wall. No matter which direction she turns, she can’t escape from seeing the boy again. The simple maze is a skillful leveraging of reality by Weekes to illuminate how learning a strange land offers its own kind of frights. The same paranoia seeps into the couple’s dwelling. The ghosts in the walls are a metaphor for the couple’s traumatic memories, crawling from the cracks in their subconscious.
His House would form a great suspenseful double feature with Mati Diop’s ghost story Atlantics. Both witness Africans traversing the dangerous open sea in search of a better life in Europe, only to be plunged into a watery grave. But both also display deceased travelers seeking revenge in the afterlife. While the ghosts in Atlantics retaliate against the manipulative capitalist foe who denied their brighter futures, the ghouls in His House target their fellow immigrants. The specific reason why is the thriller’s great mystery, which when revealed, shows the impossible decisions necessary for survival.
Because at the heart of this ghost story is survivor’s guilt. Mark mentions that typically, eight or nine refugee families might share a single house — a bit of smart foreshadowing — but Bol and Rial have their new home to themselves. Bol pointedly asks, “Why are we so special?” Bol’s oft-repeated phrase “We’re one of the good ones” hints at the same message: He believes they survived for a reason, when others didn’t. Even so, they can’t escape the feeling that they shouldn’t have lived. As Bol and Rial fray, then disintegrate, both Dirisu and Mosaku bear that weariness through gripping, lived-in performances.
While not every element of His House works, the way the neighborhood reacts to their presence doesn’t deliver enough of the real fear felt by Africans in white settings. Instead, Weekes makes clumsy use of a few local Black kids. But the parts that do hit, hit deep — especially the film’s final frames, an array of images that deliver a powerful coda in a sea of hurt. Weekes’ His House is a terrifying debut that breathes a fresh voice into the haunted-house subgenre.
His House is now available to stream on Netflix.