"His House" - quality slow-burn horror with African leads

His House is a Netflix movie that’s wayyyy better than most Netflix movies. (I’m sure it’s not internally produced) Our main characters are a wife and husband from an unnamed but war-torn African country, seeking asylum in the UK. They’ve lost their daughter in a perilous ocean crossing, and the early camera work and scene pacing shows both their dislocation and their grief. They move heavily, gamely working through the system. “We are good people,” the husband says to the asylum board, who approves them to live in a rowhouse while their case is reviewed. They are given a weekly allowance and a home, but are forbidden from working, traveling, having parties, guests, or even candles.

Their rowhouse is a low-income neighborhood, and they immediately seem apart from their surroundings, but also embedded in them. Low-key tension fills every scene as they settle in to their run down apartment, which is apparently bigger than the homes of the government workers who help them move in. Resentment swirls in the air. As they sit on the floor their first night, a candle burns between them, and you clench slightly, hoping they can be themselves and not get caught, and ejected, for it.

And then the haunting starts.

I’ll not detail what remains, except to say it’s quite well done. If you like slower, more poetic horror that’s still definitely horror, stick around. You’ll be quite happy. What at first feel like some pretty standard horror beats—albeit with uncommon protagonists—slowly turns into something much more specific, and much more personal.

The writing is quite good, spare but loaded, the performances are quite good, but the shot construction and production vie for most impressive elements. Each shot is gorgeously, appropriately lit, and little subtle things help fill out the tension and the character of each moment. And a slow pullaway shot turns one character’s willful attempts to integrate into an almost lyrical depiction of how adrift and stranded he is. Good stuff.

Spoiler thoughts on the ending.

In much western horror, plot reveals are used to show us that people do deserve the horrible stuff that’s happening to them; the moral is often that their punishment is deserved. This is totally different, and I loved it.

The movie doesn’t judge them for their horrible actions, but places them in context. They, and all the others that fill their room in the final shots, are victims, participants, people in a context of trauma, and living with their ghosts, their trauma, their history…they don’t need judgement. It’s a lovely and painful flip from standard moralistic horror. My wife and I talked about how lucky we were after this film; lucky not to have to deal with or try to integrate the kind of trauma that these “good people”—all of them—have to live with.

His House falls into a category of horror for me which takes awful real life situations and adds seemingly supernatural elements to them. His House (the UK asylum system and integration), Tigers Are Not Afraid (Mexican cartels) and Under The Shadow (Iran-Iraq war) and I’m never quite sure how I feel about the focal shift. Those situations cast long, very real and dark shadows that the supernatural kind of gets ‘lost’ in to me. But I appreciate how hardship and past trauma is often a central pillar of a lot of horror, see The Babadook or Possum for example. I enjoyed His House but there was a real tension in that housing area and their interactions with the locals that eclipsed the ‘horror’ stuff for me, even if some of it did work. I suppose it’s a kind of tension between reality and the supernatural and it often distracts me instead of drawing me in.

It’s South Sudan. I’m not sure it’s explicitly said at any point, but the language and the mythology it draws from is Dinka.

It’s a great film. Up there with Oxygen as the best Netflix movie since Roma for me*.

  • I suppose it depends whether you count Uncut Gems as a Netflix movie. It was overseas.

I loved the cast of His House, but didn’t care so much for the script. It felt kind of like a cheat.

Great examples, especially for the roles the supernatural elements play in those movies! But I recall the direction was much stronger in Tigers Are Not Afraid and Under the Shadow. It helps that those two movies are vivid representations of their cultures because, of course, they weren’t about immigrants. His House relies so much on the main characters’ experience as immigrants, on the uncertainty of having to live in a foreign land.

As I’ve said elsewhere, when it comes to immigrant horror, I’d recommend Amulet over His House.

Whereas His House has the added freight of being about a minority couple, Artifact is just about a regular ol’ white dude from a war-torn country on Continent trying to get by in London. But it’s got some really horrific stuff in it, as well as a terrific Imelda Staunton performance.

-Tom

Nicely said, @DoomMunky. His House is, like so many classical ghost stories, about redemption. The couple does a terrible thing and they have to account for it. Ghosts righting injustices. It’s what they do. When they’re not just being dicks like in Poltergeist and whatnot.

-Tom

I totally get what you’re saying, like is the “horror as metaphor for real life shit” really necessary in these already extremely fucked up situations? However, different medium, but I think this is working quite well for me so far in Detention, a game I mentioned I was playing in the Halloween games thread and which I picked up for a nearly criminal buck from the current Fanatical sale.

That’s a good point and thanks for the tip on Amulet!

Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of good things about Detention @Kolbex! Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

I think one important thing it does in this movie is pretty straightforward. With haunted house movies, a big question is always: why the heck do they stay in the house? Here, it’s simple: they’ve been placed. They don’t get a choice in the matter. And they certainly can’t convince the government case worker of the need to move.

We had a slightly different take. It was affecting, but did not rise to the level of greatness. It was … okay, without using a thumbs up/down or numerical scale.

The leads were good and it was shot well. It handled the building tension and anxiety leading to madness well. But it felt disjointed from the immigration story they laid it on just to get it in front of us. Like @geggis mentions, we were disturbed about the shift as well. I mean, just start the movie with them already living somewhere as immigrants and ask yourself again on that part of the story, “why?” The accident on the boat and their escape prior to that were as deeply affecting as the small tidbits of people checking in on them or asking them if they are the new family.

Example: The lady next door. That was just left that hanging there without any resolution really.
Another Example: The confusion trying to find the doctors office. Why? To make the female lead seem like she’s already losing her mind? Or just to present a horror like scene where everything looks the same and you’re lost?

We did enjoy it, it just wasn’t on a level where I think we’ll talk about it more than once afterward. My wife did mention she had a dream about bad stuff in the walls after watching the movie, so I guess there was something to that part of the scare.

Fair point but I have a feeling it wouldn’t have mattered if they DID move because they were being hunted by the spirit, it wasn’t tied to the place.