His House (2020)
Written by Felicity Evans, Toby Venables, and Remi Weekes
Directed by Remi Weekes
In the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries, Africa’s history is a testament to colonialism’s evil. There are constant think pieces published in the papers and magazines of note in the United States & Europe attempting to figure out what went so wrong for the continent. Recently, I saw one blaming it all on the tsetse fly. Colonists will do everything in their power to not accept their role in creating the horror inflicted upon the African people through the rabid extraction of resources. Sudan is an oil-rich country, and therefore massive conflict exists. Many people from Sudan and refugees that settled there having fled conflicts in their own regions have taken the dangerous trek up the Atlantic with dreams of possibly reaching Europe and the United Kingdom. His House is the story of two of these refugees and the horrors they face in their new home and those they bring with them.
Bol and Rial are a couple who have fled from South Sudan with their daughter. They load onto a boat crossing the English Channel from France and get caught up in a storm. The vessel is overturned, and their daughter, along with many other refugees, drown. Bol and Rial are rescued by a passing boat and brought into a refugee detention center in the U.K. Eventually, the authorities grant them probational asylum where they cannot get jobs, live in a house designated by the government, and attempt to assimilate. Their case will be reviewed later. The house ends up being a shabby place in a poor, rundown area just outside London.
Bol is determined to make it here in this new land, but Rial has some apprehension, still haunted by the loss of their child. Bol begins hearing voices at night and sounds of movement inside the walls. He becomes obsessed with rooting out whatever is inside there, convincing himself it’s rats. As Bol tosses out their clothes with English outfits as replacements and trashes their daughter’s doll, Rial clings to their memories and culture. Rial is sure they have brought an apeth or “night witch” with them from Africa. The apeth follows those who stole something and won’t relent until the debt is paid, typically with blood.
His House is a very well made horror flick, with some minor technical bits and story beats I didn’t really like, but they certainly didn’t mar the overall experience. I really loved the decaying aspect of the house and neighborhood. I almost wish there had been a little more time exploring this nightmarish take on London. When Rial ventures out to make an appointment at the clinic, she becomes lost in the maze of streets and alleys. There’s a great bit that implies the horror elements don’t just live inside the walls of their house. I think it was a great representation of what it must be like for refugees trying to navigate a place so unlike where they came from. I related just as someone who has moved around and had to orient myself, which can’t be nearly as difficult when dealing with English as a second or third language.
I was highly impressed with the production quality of the film. The budget was $17 million, making this not quite a low-budget movie but not one of Netflix’s larger productions. Some great uses of computer special effects happen in dream sequences, but I appreciate that practical effects were still incorporated. Seeing a figure slowly emerging from the shadows of the living room or quickly scramble past a door frame were pretty effective jumpscares. I am not a big fan of jump scares in horror, but the film actually gives context for this with the apeth attempting to terrorize the couple into submission.
But like with all good horror, this works because we spend a lot of time getting to know and understand the characters. The third act is extraordinary at unearthing the ugliness of humanity. We certainly don’t need ghosts and monsters to make this world terrifying. We learn things about Bol and Rial that challenge our perceptions of them, but the film manages to end things on a hopeful note. I think that “happy ending” was a better choice than something bleaker, and I am usually a fan of dark endings. Life is not going to simple after overcoming this hurdle, but Bol and Rial have learned something; they have worked through grief and guilt. The struggle will continue, but they have grown closer and are going to try to forge ahead.