It sounds like something you’ve seen a million times, but its cultural point of view is tilt-shifted enough to make it engrossing. While haunted house stories generally evoke the evil of a place, His House evokes the evil of a tormented experience, wherein Bol and Rial were forced from their homes by the Sudanese Civil War and had to traverse a violent ocean, only to end up in a country that accepts them with great reluctance. The British citizens they encounter look upon them with suspicion; the infested holes in their walls reflect the rot lurking beneath the veneer of British politeness.And the ghosts, which begin to call to them from the shadows, seem to be spirits and dark memories they’ve brought along with them. Manifestations, perhaps, of an “apeth” — a malignant witch Rial learned of from her grandmother’s stories.
However, these ghostly visions, which call out to them from the darkness, aren’t the film’s main source of conflict. Untethered from their homeland, Bol and Rial are forced into an unfamiliar world with grief still wedged between them, which feels just as unnerving as their dilapidated dwelling. While Bol strives to assimilate as quickly as possible — he buries his grief beneath a stiff British upper lip, and insists on using forks and knives — Rial tries to hold on to whatever parts of herself and her daughter she possibly can. Some part of her even wants to return to her war-torn homeland.
Each time Rial speaks Dinka, Bol insists on English. Where Rial fashions traditional garb out of bedsheets and whatever materials she can find, Bol models himself after catalog advertisements and the men at the local pub; he wants to be “one of the good ones,” in Mark’s eyes. He wants to be British, even if it means leaving behind his distinctly refugee pain. The couple lives under the same roof, but they’re as far removed from each other’s coping mechanisms as can be.
The film, by weaving together the ideas of pain and respectability politics, makes the very idea of existing in a new country feel terrifying. Bol adjusts better to the outside world, but to Rial, it’s practically a maze, in which people refuse to recognize her pain. This dynamic, however, is flipped when the couple is indoors; Rial, having survived the worst horrors humanity has to offer, isn’t fazed by her ghostly memories. However, the walls seem to drive Bol mad, to the point that he begins hammering his way to their foundations. He’s laid claim to this new home, and he’ll make it his no matter what, even if it kills him.Where the film begins to depart from other haunted house stories is in its depiction of spiritual horrors. At first, they lurk in the shadows like your average ghosts of Hill House or Bly Manor, but they aren’t riddles to be solved or foreign specters to be outrun. It soon becomes clear to the characters that these may well be the ghosts of other refugees, including their own daughter, and they aren’t afraid to show themselves.
The apeth and its tricks are the couple’s own survivor’s guilt made manifest. This house is only haunted because they, themselves, are the ones haunting it with their grief. For Bol, the only solution is to confront these spirits head-on — but, as the victims of a perilous journey, these spirits aren’t tethered to one place, and so Bol is dragged into nightmarish dreamscapes out at sea. (Rial, similarly, finds herself walking through surreal flashbacks and familiar visions, though their disconnect from her reality hints at a strange, inexplicable denial yet to be revealed).
As Bol’s body and mind begin to unravel, Weekes and cinematographer Jo Willems film him with a lurking dread. The camera creeps towards Bol with caution, as if he might be pushed to violence at any moment. During night scenes, especially those lit by candlelight, practically every frame is consumed by shadow and negative space, as if Bol and Rial’s demons are waiting to cry out from every corner. Granted, when the apeth inevitably takes physical form, the result is oddly deflating (for a film so otherwise adept), but the story’s strengths lie not in its genre tropes but in its extrapolation of human horrors and their lingering psychological toll.The film is at its best when its subtle design captures the horrors of memory. Roque Baños’ original score evokes the sounds of Gustavo Santaolalla, whose Charango guitar brought life to Babel and Brokeback Mountain — only Baños complements his heavy strings with jarring echoes that feel ready to consume the melody. Empty strollers abound in the margins of several scenes, like haunting reminders of loss, and the film’s incredible sound mix blurs the lines between scream and whisper; memories of death are both far off in the distance, and yet close enough to touch.
And water, whether household leaks or unforgiving rain, is a constant reminder of drowning. The film plays, at times, like a horror version of Atlantique, Mati Diop’s ghostly love story about Senegalese refugees, in which water is an overwhelming force, both stealing and returning lovers in the dead of night. Only here, those returning to Bol and Rial in the darkness are reminders of something more sinister than romance; they’re embodiments of the atrocities which the couple has not only had to endure but commit in order to survive.
Dirisu and Mosaku navigate the film’s chilling tapestry with aplomb, bringing warring energies to Bol and Rial’s dynamic — a chemistry that makes the characters’ disconnect all the more disheartening. The more Bol begins to crack, the more desperately he tries to keep himself together, putting on a jovial front that barely holds. Meanwhile, the headstrong Rial attempts to stay centered, though she’s constantly knocked off balance, ever so slightly. Where Dirisu oscillates with reckless abandon, Mosaku fights against her own instincts, and the result is two wildly different performances that not only complement each other but constantly pull each other into their orbits. The couple may no longer communicate well through words, but their body language and their disconnect from one another feels like an argument of its own. The only way to overcome it is to confront each other, and the horrors of their past.
Tightly wound on almost every front, His House packs an enormous emotional punch even once its scares grow stale. It brings to the surface the toll taken by the refugee experience — on mind, body, and soul — refashioning it into a unique haunted house drama, where ghosts reveal themselves far more often than they hide.
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