Mike Flanagan counts himself as an admirer of writer-director Remi Weekes’ “His House” (Netflix), and it’s no wonder: Like Flanagan’s work, Weekes’ calling-card film uses the structure and tropes of horror to slyly tell a surprising, insightful story about the human experience. Specifically, it’s the chronicle Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) Majur settling in the U.K., having fled the tribal war in South Sudan.
The government places them in a tenement (and surrounding neighborhood) so strikingly ugly that I had to look it up, but IMDB lists only a London studio. Weekes – working from a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables — gives us little examples of the Majurs feeling out of place. Rial tries to find the hospital and gets lost in a neighborhood so maze-like it could almost be a dream, and when she asks a trio of black youths for directions, they tell her to “Go back to Africa.”
Bol uses some of his weekly stipend to get a haircut and asks the barber if they are in London; the barber laughingly lets Bol keep his assumption. Wherever this is, it’s such a crappy part of the U.K. that the locals can’t bring themselves to say the city’s name.
“His House” pulls off a neat trick wherein we as English-language viewers are right there with the Majurs (who speak English well but sometimes lapse into English-subtitled Dinka). Sure, this is better than living in a war zone, and Bol in particular is game to make the best of it. But they are grieving the loss of a child on the sea voyage; the house they are given is an unfurnished, electricity-challenged mess; they aren’t allowed to look for jobs; and they have pressure hanging over their heads as they await approval to stay long-term. Being sent back to South Sudan is basically a death sentence.
It’s amusing how their plight is so extreme that some details of racism become comparatively inconsequential. When Bol shops for a new shirt and pants, the store’s security guard tails him. That’s the type of annoyance more privileged victims of racism would notice.
This isn’t a comedic film by any means, but we can understand Bol’s Joker-like impulsive laughter when the refugee handler, Mark (Matt Smith), asks for details about the problems with the unit. We realize along with Bol that he can’t say “It’s haunted” if he wants to stay in the country.
The haunting stuff is good in its own right. The film hasn’t gone 15 minutes before its first excellent jump scare. “His House” could almost be “Lights Out 2” as it makes use of the crappy and creepy unit with holes in the walls.
“His House” doesn’t merely ask us to feel sorry for the Majurs, who are fully rendered people thanks to the actors. The ghost infestation causes a rift in the marriage, yet they only have each other. And a brilliant late-film twist reveals another imperfection.
By the end I had a thorough feel for a refugee’s shock of displacement, survivor’s guilt, and the difficulty of starting fresh and putting on a happy face when such horrors happened to you so recently. Yet “His House” is also a good haunted-house flick, so it’s like taking one’s medicine with ice cream.