Monday 26 April 2021

On demand: "His House"

As its title would suggest, proprietary issues hang heavy over Remi Weekes' BAFTA-winning breakout His House, a horror movie that almost doesn't need to invoke the supernatural to be unnerving. At its centre: Bol and Rial (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku), a married couple who lost a daughter while fleeing war-torn South Sudan, and now find themselves in grey, rainy post-Brexit Britain, where they're meant to be grateful for any scrap of assistance tossed their way. The biggest scrap, or at least that's how it first appears, is being installed in a dingy, ill-tended council flat, with unhelpfully sporadic electricity and wallpaper that curls like the apocryphal British Rail sandwiches, while they wait for their case to be heard by the Home Office. Here, the movie arrives at a fork in the creative road. It would be easy to imagine the British film industry addressing this couple's plight in strictly social-realist terms, as has become the default mode for stories such as these, although Channel 4's borderline miraculous sitcom Home has recently revised the migrant narrative to include melancholy-to-grim, conscience-pricking, ever-genuine laughs. Weekes proposes a third way, more imaginative yet, wondering what would happen if this halfway house became a haunted house, whether stalked by the ghosts of previous residents, the manifestation of lingering traumas, or some other curse the couple have trailed with them. However you interpret this growing disquiet, one thing becomes clear: Bol and Rial are trapped between worlds for the time being, literally neither here nor there.

The flat in itself would be troubling enough, production designer Jacqueline Abrahams opening up chasms in its crawlspace, revealing its rot night after night and eventually turning one party against another: any resemblance to the wider British picture is presumably wholly deliberate. Yet somehow His House becomes even more uncanny whenever its protagonists venture out onto the streets of what Bol describes as "a strange country". This land is free from war - so far, at any road - but it's a maze of unfamiliar alleyways, curious accents, and peculiar tribal chants. (At one point, Bol takes a wrong turn and winds up in a pub full of middle-aged palefaces in matching shirts hymning the player-God Peter Crouch.) The natives have a very weird, almost indetectable sense of humour; that's when they're not being openly xenophobic. A more straightforwardly social-realist approach would point up the parallels, make certain the audience was aware all of this was happening in a town near you - bringing the drama closer to home. Weekes's camera looks on the same locations as an outsider might: we're never just dispassionate observers, but actively set to puzzling this place - these places - out. Why does a store detective follow Bol around when he's out shopping for more British-looking clothes? Why, for that matter, are all the models on the instore POS exclusively Caucasian? What message is that sending? 

The flat, whenever we return there, isn't the sanctuary this couple came seeking, rather a repository for all those doubts and fears that can't be so easily made over, and for Weekes's wilder (more specific: most nightmarish) imagery: a humdrum dump that looks out onto a variety of hellscapes, many of those manmade. As a calling card - a taut 90-minute genre item that offers the promise of even bigger and better to come - there really hasn't been anything stronger in the past twelve months. His House gets right something I thought the widely admired Saint Maud fumbled: fully integrating its interior and exterior spaces, so that the gripping grand Gothic inside the old dark house serves as an extension of the more realist location work. (It's all of a piece: a mad world, in a rotting nutshell.) Weekes makes his dream logic add up, throws in a real gutpunch of a third-act reveal, and then pulls off a finale that takes place in three separate timelines simultaneously, the kind of ambition you're just not supposed to write into your first lowish-budget horror movie. As if all that wasn't exciting enough, he does incredibly close, detailed, rewarding work with well-cast actors. There's a nice supporting turn from Matt Smith as a cheeky-chappy caseworker whose facade soon slips to reveal he, too, finds himself operating in a dead end of sorts; while Dìrísù and Mosaku quietly humanise characters who are far from the usual horror-film patsies. Bol and Rial, who really do lodge in the mind, are a loving, troubled couple who did what they had to do to survive, only to then witness their hopes and dreams of a better life threatened by an environment that proves hostile in the extreme.

His House is now streaming on Netflix.

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