couple having a picnic on the floor
Posted on November 12, 2020

“We lost her when we crossed the sea”: His House Review

Guest Post

Last year, I reviewed Beneath Us (2019) for Horror Homeroom–a film that positioned immigrants to the US in literal and figurative subterranean spaces beneath American society. Tellingly, that film took far longer to get a release in the land of its origin than it did in Europe. His House (2020) landed on Netflix recently, a film that pairs haunted house horror tropes with the plight of immigrants into Britain, and offers a useful comparison between horror films stemming from migration out of Africa into Europe and from South America into North America. As these examples attest, and sitting as they do alongside a spate of lyrical, challenging and important films that deal with racial disparity, from Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) to Antebellum (Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, 2020), genre filmmaking, especially horror, often has licence to address these topics in a far more nuanced and complicated manner than straight dramas, and potentially to reach far greater audiences.

man being attacked by house

The House as antagonist

Helmed by first-time feature director Remi Weekes [1] (from his screenplay based on a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables), His House takes up the story of Sudanese asylum-seeking couple Bol and Rial Majur (Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku), as they await the outcome of their claim in a claustrophobic detention centre in an unspecified region. They are granted temporary reprieve as their claim is further scrutinised, eventually being giving a dilapidated house in a nondescript and topographically obscure housing estate. They have the threat of their claim being invalidated hanging over them constantly, as their case workers at the detention centre detail a long list of possible infractions. Upon arriving at their new house, the job of case worker is taken over by Mark (Matt Smith, who oozes a sleazy demeanour and a simmering hatred that works to distance him from his debonair turns in Doctor Who and The Crown), and who urges the couple to ‘fit in’ as much as possible. This Bol does more enthusiastically (chanting football songs down the pub, cutting his hair and shopping for western clothes) than does Rial, who remains more rooted in her former life.

man sitting at table

Mark (Matt Smith) is the unsympathetic face of the government as his colleagues make snide remarks in the background. He reveals he used to be a banker, further marking him as the enemy of the disenfranchised.

The horror, which engages with well-established tropes of the haunted house genre, also engages with African myth and folklore, but by having the couple constantly haunted by their past and taunted by their future, His House avoids the trap of many western horror films that mystify and exoticise the cultures of indigenous races as an excuse to torment white suburban families (think of the Indian burial ground in Poltergeist, Pazuzu’s Middle Eastern and African origins in The Exorcist or further back to the colonial anxiety of W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw). The couple see visions of masked figures, something in the broken and tattered walls of the house, and a tall witch, which they recognise as an ‘apeth’ or ‘night witch’ but who targets Bol more blatantly (we find out why as the story progresses). [2]

As with Beneath Us, the literal and metaphorical use of space deployed in His House is critical to creating meaning. The couple goes from the cramped and oppressive interiors of the detention bedrooms to the equally oppressive empty space of the detention hall, where they are made to seem small and helpless against the panel of immigration officers, exacerbated by the choice of camera angles and positioning. Bol and Rial are then confined again, as they are ordered not to leave their new home or risk deportation. We are also given flashbacks to their overcrowded motor boat on its way to the UK. The refugees are placed on the margins or squeezed between spaces, much like their real counterparts. There is a reason why the location is never explicitly identified (perhaps somewhere on the outskirts of London given the Estuary accents on display). It is soulless and intimidating, but its non-specificity is also instructive of a life permanently displaced.

 Comparing two shota. One where two people ask questions and one where two people answer.

Spatial dynamics in the detention centre

The chronic displacement is more keenly felt by Rial and is especially on display in a sequence in which she is forced to leave the house for the first time to attend a doctor’s appointment. Wearing a bright red jacket, which makes her stand out even more against the pallid and subdued tones of the housing estate, she wanders down endless streets that look the same, and through alleyways and backstreets that position her as one lost in the Minotaur’s labyrinth. (The red jacket even offers an intertextual link to Wendy Torrance in The Shining who also wore a red coat when she navigated the Outlook Hotel’s maze.) It is here, helplessly lost, that she asks a group of Black schoolchildren for directions. They mock and belittle her at first, before becoming more belligerent: “go back to f##king Africa…only English round here darling.” This is in contrast to Bol and Rial’s white neighbours who seem more distant but less aggressive. This, combined with later revelatory details regarding some difficult decisions made in Bol and Rial’s treacherous journey form war-torn Southern Sudan to Britain, offers a complex depiction of immigration, one quite removed from its treatment in the media and across the political spectrum.

woman in red coat walking

Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) gets lost in her own labyrinth

But it is the sea, its powerful absence and presence, which is a key site of horror in the film and which is significant for ensuring the supernatural horror lies alongside the horror of the everyday. Not only do flashbacks offer glimpses into maritime misfortune on their boat journey, but Bol often has dreams of the journey, including imagining himself being dragged down into the sea by restless and malevolent souls. One of the first things he finds in the walls of the house is a piece of rope, which, when pulled, seems to be covered in kelp and sea moss. In Lovecraftian tradition, death and apocalypse are visualised as a return to the depths of the ocean from which our ancestors sprung. Bol reminds Rial that they had to make sacrifices to start a new life–and that included the death of their daughter: “We lost her when we crossed the sea,” he reminds her, this real-life tragedy serving as the fulcrum for the supernatural horror.

nightmare landscapes

Sea Sickness: nightmares of the sea serve as a constant reminder of the price to be paid for ‘freedom’

In real terms, the depiction of the sea in His House functions as a link between supernatural and corporeal horror, reminding the viewer of newspaper images of poor drowned children washed up on foreign shores, dangerous and overcrowded boats crossing the Mediterranean and the English Channel, and waves of people for whom sea crossings are a last, desperate gamble. The sea is ahistorical and topographically insecure, a space that constantly ebbs and flows–and a space as much of death and disaster as one that promises new beginnings. His House has its provenance in the displacements of politics, economics and warfare, diasporas engendered by circumstance rather than choice, and it has its filmic cousins in the British films Ghosts (2006), Nick Broomfield’s drama about the Chinese migrants drowned picking cockles in Morecombe Bay, and the little seen True North (2006), similarly about Chinese immigrants drowned at sea, as well as the Italian documentary Fire at Sea (2016) and also, to bring us full circle, in Beneath Us.

In His House, the lines between imagined horrors and the tangible horror of everyday experience are offered as an endlessly reflecting hall of mirrors.

Check out the trailer for His House, which is streaming on Netflix:



[1] Weekes has made a number of interesting shorts though, including Tickle Monster (2016) for Channel 4 in the UK.

You can watch Tickle Monster on YouTube:

[2] This is portrayed in inimitable fashion by horror creature stalwart Javier Botet (IT, REC, Insidious, The Conjuring)

Dr Mark Fryers specialises in film history and theory and is currently teaching at Greenwich University. He has previous publications for Rowman & Littlefield, I.B. Tauris and John Libbey Publishing as well as blogs and articles for numerous websites and other publications. He has forthcoming book chapters on Jaws and on British horror television. You can find his essay on “Remember Me” (2014) and the haunted seascapes of British TV in Critical Studies in Television; he has also contributed essays to The Spooky Isles here. He has previously written for Horror Homeroom on the domestically entrapped male in horror film, especially the 2017 film Marrowbone, and immigrant horror in the 2019 film Beneath Us.

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