His House: Is This Netflix’s Most Disturbing Film Yet?
Last Halloween was weird. Not only was there a paucity of trick or treaters at my door, but there were no new horror films at my local multiplex to scare the shit out of me. It’s a shame too because it promised to be a banner year for cinematic horror, with a sequel to the impressive Halloween reboot (imaginatively entitled Halloween Kills) and new films in The Conjuring, Saw, and Purge franchises. Hell, there was even going to be a reboot of Candyman produced by Get Out’s Jordan Peele. What were we left with instead? Fucking Hubie Halloween on Netflix.
That’s not to say that Hubie Halloween was bad… it’s far worse than that, but the film is a symptom of the streaming services’ tendency to bombard us with cheap, schlocky scares over the Halloween period, foregoing quality for quantity… and Adam Sandler.
But for every Bird Box, Malevolent, and Gerald’s Game, there are ten Hubie Halloweens and The Babysitters making quality horror (as with most genres on the streaming service) difficult to find. But this past rainy weekend in my boredom I stumbled upon a real gem of a Netflix produced horror film: a film that is still playing on my mind many days after seeing it. That film is His House directed by Remi Weeks.
His House: The Plot
**Spoilers ahead: This article is an in-depth discussion of His House and will discuss the plot of the film in great detail*. You have been warned.**
On paper, the story of His House is standard haunted house fare, with a bit of social commentary thrown in. But similarly to the aforementioned Get Out and genre heavyweight Night of the Living Dead, it transcends the bare-boned nature of its script to be both affecting and thought-provoking in equal measures. There’s no doubt the film is a slow burn but give it time and it will worm its way under your skin… even though this might not be in the way you expect.
The film follows Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) two refugees fleeing war-ravaged South Sudan with a girl called Nyagak, who we are led to believe is their daughter. Unfortunately, Nyagak, along with many others, perishes when the overcrowded motorboat they travel across the Mediterranean on capsizes during a storm.
The film then jumps to 3 months later and we reunite with Bol and Rial as they are granted temporary asylum in the UK. They meet with a caseworker called Mark (Matt Smith) who assigns them a rundown council house and warns them that if they fail to follow the rules, they will be deported. Smith brings an unnerving quality to Mark and you are never quite sure what his thoughts are despite his semi-racist hope that Bol and Rial are one of “the good ones”.
Bol is keen to assimilate with his surroundings and seems to have little grief for his recently deceased daughter. He heads to the pub and joins in with football chants. He changes the way he dresses to suit his Western environment. He even tries to get Rial to use a knife and fork to eat dinner rather than the hands she is accustomed to. Bol is desperate to prove to the UK authorities that he belongs in the UK and is quick to forgo his roots. Rial struggles with her husband’s attempts at assimilation and clings to her culture. She dresses in colourful clothes and sits on the floor to eat as they would have done at home in Sudan.
Not long after moving into their new home, Bol and Rial begin to experience strange occurrences. Nyagak, as well as a mysterious man (later to joined by a range of other people), appear to through a hole in the wall that becomes a conduit for the ghosts of the dead.
Rial soon understands what the evil is and labels it a ‘night witch’ after an experience she had when she was younger in her home village. She tells Bol the story of a man who accidentally stole from an apeth (witch). When the man built his home, the apeth followed and haunted him for the rest of his life. Rial believes the ‘night witch’ is doing the same to them. Bol, thinking he must have taken something that didn’t belong to him, burns all his belongings and smashes down the walls of the house looking for the apeth. But this has no affect and the visions persist and intensify.
Eventually, the witch presents itself to Bol and explains that he wants his life for Nyagak’s. Bol refuses and he and Rial argue. Rial accuses Bol of stealing a life that needs returning. It is at this moment that the secrets of Bol’s story come tumbling out, and we realise Nyagak wasn’t his and Rial’s child. He had stolen the young girl from her mother to escape approaching armed fighters. When Nyagak died, it wasn’t the grief of losing a daughter that Bol and Rial suffered, but the shame of stealing a life and the responsibility of that life’s eventual death.
In the end, Bol realises what he must do and offers to give himself to the witch to protect his wife. In one last confrontation, he subjugates to the demon, but Rial is unwilling to let her husband go and appears at the last second to kill the witch.
The final scene sees a changed Rial and Bol in their home with Mark. With the witch behind them, the future looks bright for the pair and Mark echos this optimism by overlooking various problems with the home that could have seen them deported. But things are not as they seem, and as the camera pans away, we see the ghosts of the dead surrounding them, suggesting that their torment may not yet be over.
His House: Themes
The story of His House on paper is reminiscent of millions of other haunted house films. And the film employs many of the tactics found in similar genre pieces like The Haunting of Hill House, Amityville Horror, and even The Shining. It has jump scares and disturbing imagery, as you would expect (one scene of Nyaguk staring through the crack in the wall brought back images of Jack Nicholson shouting, “Where’s Johnnie”). And while the film successfully employs ‘scare tactics’ in a modest but unsettling way, it doesn’t rely on them. The film worms its way under your skin slowly and keeps digging until you can’t dismiss the sense of pain and dread it gives.
The characters are presented as good people. Both Bol and Rial are bright and seemingly happy as the film starts, despite the supposed pain of losing a child. But the many flashbacks reveal layers of horror that any right-minded person could barely comprehend. They are damaged people who are surrounded by the ghosts of their past, both figuratively and literally. Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku as Bol and Rial are pitch perfect as the tormented pair and they portray their descent into a hell partly of their own making and partly because of the horrors of genocide and immigration with subtlety and determination.
The ‘English’ aspect
The tension between Bol and Rial as the two approach their new life in the UK differently is a powerful side story to the horrors of the film. As somebody who’s never had to flee to another country, the plight of Bol and Rial is a wake-up call. Their situation is genuinely heart breaking. After suffering so much to get to a country thousands of miles away from their home, they are then forced to change aspects of themselves just to fit in. The cynics out there will say that Bol and Rial should be grateful for the opportunities given to them by being ‘allowed’ to enter the UK. But does that mean they have to change the way they dress, speak, and act too?
One of the most powerful scenes in the entire film has nothing to do with ghosts or other horrors and is the one overtly racist section of the movie. The scene where Rial comes across a trio of black English youths who tell her to, “Go back to where she came from,” is truly shocking. Seeing black people say these things to other black people really brings racism into its true light and highlights that anybody can be racist, and anybody can be the victim of racism.
The plight of immigrants
The true power of His House doesn’t lie in the barely seen ghosts and creepy eyes staring out from cracks in the wall. It is in the horrific nature of Bol and Rials journey to the UK and what brought them there in the first place. The couple’s passage to the UK is shown piecemeal in flashbacks that reveal layers of horror, culminating in the decision to ‘steal’ Nyaguk. Bol in taking the child makes a heartbreaking decision. It’s easy in the cold light of day to condemn his actions. But in the face of death, as armed soldiers’ approach, the film begs the question, what would you do? Bol and Rial are good people. The film makes that clear. Would they have taken Nyaguk under normal circumstances? Of course not.
From a viewer’s perspective, watching the scenes of atrocity as the couple desperately struggle to get away from the slaughter of their home country is incredibly moving. Watching Nyaguk’s death or realising that Rial’s friends at the school she worked at (who we see alive in flashbacks) were all massacred puts a whole new light on the plight of immigrants and begs the question why we are so scared to help people who are in such dire need.
His House: The ending
Under more generic hands than director Remi Weeks, the ending of His House might have come across as standard good guys beat evil demon and live happily ever after. Indeed, the last scene with Matt Smith’s Mark letting them off for their transgressions (the house is seriously fucked up by this point) appears positive. But Bol and Rial can never get away from the ghosts of their past. The friends, family, and strangers that died will never leave them. Week’s shows this in the final shot by surrounding the couple with those who died. It’s a clever scene. By foregoing the one last jump scare common in the genre, Weeks is in essence saying that we are all surrounded by the ghosts of our past. The things we have seen and the things we have done will always haunt us, no matter how hard we try to push them to the back of our minds. Yes, a jump scare would’ve given one more shot of adrenaline and had the same result of showing the ghosts, but would it have been as powerful or thought-provoking? I think not. The film ends as it began by asking what really scares us. Is it in a barely glimpsed spectre jumping from the dark, or the horrors of the real world we see every day that we can’t escape?
His House took me by surprise. It is genuinely a film I stumbled upon on a cold, wet autumn evening by accident. Since seeing it, I’ve spent several hours researching its themes and looking at the background of the story. And by doing so, the film has taken on a new power. The power to make me think. Not for a long time has a story got under my skin like that of Bol and Rial. But I suppose that’s another aspect of this film — the ability to make the audience confront their own perceptions of the world.
His House is streaming on Netflix right now and I recommend everyone take the time to watch it.