▶︎ His House is released in UK cinemas on 23 October and streams on Netflix from 30 October.
A perennial issue with haunted house stories is that after escalating manifestations and supernatural attacks, audiences start to wonder why anyone – no matter how good a deal they’d been given on the property – would stay in the bad place.
His House comes up with a fresh answer – if the Majurs abandon the spacious but shabby council house, their refugee claim is liable to be looked on with disfavour and they’ll be ‘sent back’ to a war-torn sub-Saharan region. Their resistance is all the stronger for the ordeal they have endured to reach Britain – including the loss of a child in stormy night-time seas – so they are more trapped with angry, resentful ghosts than any mortgage holder in Amityville or snowbound caretaker of the Overlook Hotel.
First-time director Remi Weekes, working from a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, doesn’t take the comparatively standard approach of establishing a social-realistic context and then letting the supernatural seep in. From the outset, this manages to inhabit both a Ken Loach-type drab urban space and an insidious netherworld. All English characters are presented as self-involved caricatures – social workers, neighbours, a silent security guard who stalks Bol as soon as he steps into a clothing shop, even Black British schoolchildren who mock Rial’s accent – except perhaps Matt Smith, as a bureaucrat who might have some sort of sinister purpose. Is putting the Majurs in a haunted place a stratagem for making them quit their refugee claim – in which case, it’s underestimating what they’ve been through to get to where they are – or have they brought the ghosts with them?
Grounded by nuanced, unhistrionic work from leads Sopé Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku, His House shifts focus from exterior threat to the cracks in the Majur marriage, exacerbated by disagreements about assimilation – though at the heart of the horror is a particular, personal crime which must be atoned for.
Weekes stages a number of stunning moments – a pull-back from Bol sat at an unfamiliar table to show a chunk of the wall of his house floating in a remembered night-sea; and repeated manifestations by the formidable night witch (played by Javier Botet, leading interpreter of double-jointed demons) and the skull-masked spectre of the lost girl. According to the rules of this legend, the witch can’t physically harm those it would evict from house and body – the title refers as much to flesh as brick – but has an infinite capacity to mess with minds. In the end, this makes for a terrifying ride with an ambiguous, unsettling conclusion.