Sometimes, the sign of a truly excellent horror film (especially one with a supernatural leaning) is that there would still be the makings of a gripping narrative if it dispensed with the horror elements. Look at films like Hereditary, What Lies Beneath and Relic; strip away the spectral threats and you are still left with tightly wound domestic thrillers that, in one way or another, reveal some distressing truths about the human experience. Well, we can now add Remi Weekes's His House to the list of truly excellent horror films. Seriously, debut feature film directors are killing it these days.
His House, perhaps to an even greater extent than the other films listed above, also tells a deeply affecting and devastating story before things start banging on the walls. Bol and Rial (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku, both giving tremendous performances) flee violent civil unrest in war-torn South Sudan, but tragically lose their daughter, Nyagak, while crossing the churning Mediterranean. Once safe and eventually released from detention (after a scene that's considerably funnier than one you would expect in a film like this), they attempt to assimilate their new way of life in an undisclosed English city.
One of their very first tastes of Western culture is being presented with a rundown, cockroach-infested house by their case worker (Matt Smith); the insinuation that they should somehow be grateful for their disgusting new living conditions is only the first of many indications that the grass is not going to be quite as green as they had hoped. There is another particularly shocking scene where, on her first solo outing, Rial assumes she will have a civil interaction with a trio of Black teenagers - further evidence that the refugee experience holds enough horrors of its own. However, the film wastes no time in hinting that the emotional trajectory of this couple's journey has not yet reached its valley. Soon, it becomes clear that something is very, very wrong. Voices speak from behind wallpaper that peels itself off. Nightmarish figures appear exactly where we expect them to, but not when. Worst of all, what initially reads like a fresh take on a haunted house story becomes considerably more unsettling once it's suggested that maybe they brought this malevolent force with them.
The most exciting and chillingly effective thing about Weekes's debut is the almost gleeful way he subverts our expectations. Discerning horror fans will be able to predict a couple of the jumps, but they are almost always followed up in a totally surprising way. Probably the best scare of the film is the first one - it's Insidious-level genius. The most commonly uttered phrase while watching this film will be, "don't put your hand in there, you idiot!" On a personal note, Weekes also finds my horror Achilles heel - the gradually accelerating and loudening footsteps in the dark. Alejandro Amenábar first got me good with that trick in 2001's The Others, and the technique has never failed to give me chills since.
There is a caveat to my opening statement: truly excellent horror films don't work if the human element of the stories is not told with as much dedication and sincerity as the craftsmanship of the scares. This film rests on the shoulders of Dìrísù and Mosaku, and they are utterly believable as a married couple. The trauma from the opening scene that irrevocably binds them together (and the grief that follows) manifests itself in quiet, tender moments where they contentedly sit in each other's silence. In a parallel universe, there is a weaker draft of this screenplay (also by Weekes) where, once things start to unravel, only one of them is witness to it, and they spend the duration of the film trying to convince their partner they're not crazy. Fortunately, that is not the version we see here. Both Bol and Rial are fully aware of the peril they're in, but it stirs up very different instincts. Stakes are created by their deeply universal relationship crossing paths with an unknowable evil. The human element of the story co-mingles with the supernatural; that's how a truly excellent horror film is born.
Without saying too much, as if the finely balanced formula of His House weren't impressive enough, there is also a significant plot development in the third act that upturns our perception and causes us to question where we had directed our sympathy. It takes the form of a very simple piece of information we hadn't been privy to, but once we know it, the perspective shift is immediate and indelible. It's a spectacular piece of writing and proves that plot twists can actually improve a story, rather than simply being a means of jolting us awake again because the movie is about to end.
His House, save for one squirm-inducing moment, knows that its subject matter is intense enough for it not to need to be a gore-fest. (The moment in question features a creature design that would have Guillermo del Toro grinning with pride.) It's a perfectly calibrated and exquisitely paced film that should be required viewing for any self-professed horror fan, as well as anyone that needs convincing that horror films are a legitimate medium for telling important stories.
His House is streaming on Netflix now.