Weekes’ debut feature film is a mixture of human drama and conventional horror, exploring the trauma of survivor’s guilt through the main characters and their environments. Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial Major (Wanmi Mosaku) are a husband and wife who have fled their home of South Sudan, escaping the grips of terror and war that endangered them. In England, they’re granted probational asylum and given a shabby – but spacious – house in a London council estate. The threat of deportation looms above them if they don’t stick to the tough rules, enforced by their surprisingly empathetic case worker Mark (Matt Smith), but the racism they face and their attempts to assimilate into a new environment proves even more difficult when their house becomes a terrifying prison of haunted visions – including ones of their dead daughter Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba).
These visions manifest themselves to both Bol and Rial, but they react and process it differently. Bol wants to move on and blend in, buying and wearing the same clothes advertised on a happy white family, using cutlery instead of his hands, dining at the table rather than the floor. Rial, however, does the opposite – she continues to dress in her culture’s vibrant clothing, disregarding the bland British garments Bol has bought her, and she keeps her daughter’s bead necklace.
The horror itself follows Bol through the walls of their new home. He sees faces in the walls and hears scurrying around the house, leading him to obliterating the walls with a hammer and ripping all the wallpaper off in an attempt to chase out the thing that seems to taunt him. The dead people that appear, including their daughter, seem to be the souls lost on their boat ride across the choppy Mediterranean Sea that upended, resulting in multiple lives taken. This is where the clever allusion to survivor’s guilt is expressed; Rial believes she failed at keeping her daughter alive, and to disregard her culture is to disregard the life and death of the people that were forced away from their homes and had to make the same journey as Rial and Bol. The pain has followed them, as has the fact that they had no option but to push and force their way to salvation or they’d be dead.
This weight of guilt is conveyed through great metaphorical shots of Bol eating at the kitchen table as the slow zoom out shows he’s floating on the sea he crossed, and the shot of Bol and Rial standing together in one room, surrounded by other unknown immigrants as they stare at Nyagak across the hallway as she and the other dead people from the boat fill the room. The message is clear; ‘seeking asylum’ isn’t the same as seeking peace. People may have survived the trip but that doesn’t mean they’re free. Bol and Rial may have a new ‘home’, but that house is filled with the people whose own homes they were forced to flee.
The final climax of His House features a showdown between Rial, Bol, and the ‘Witch’ that seems to be orchestrating the whole haunting. This fight between ‘good and evil’ is one of the conventional horror aspects that Weekes has included (with a cultural twist, as a Sudanese tale Rial spoke of in the film alludes to the reason behind the Witch’s presence). The duo defeat the Witch, accept their past as the past, and begin to repair the walls of their home so they don’t get kicked out. The final shot of the groups of people – one led by the survivors, one led by the dead – indicates that even in accepting that they’re alive, they cannot forget the lives of those who didn’t make it.
There is an authentic lifelike horror in the casual and blatant racism they face, such as three school boys mocking Rial’s accent or the security guard following Bol around the store, mixed with the visual horror imagery of faces in the walls and sequences of Rial becoming lost in the endless labyrinthine council estate as each turn leads to a dead-end she’s already seen before. The feeling of confinement that Bol and Rial face is both metaphorical and real; they’re imprisoned by the rules of their probational asylum, confined by the new order of local culture, trapped within a new environment so different from their home, and dominated by their traumatic journey.
The human drama of His House is well-done, as are the horror elements, but they could have been merged slightly better. There’s a fantastic story here, filled with heartache and tragedy that happens to thousands of people, and that is explored very clearly – but some of the tropey techniques feel like they take away from that actual horror. However, I do appreciate the fact that the tropes of horror are installed in a film about survivor’s guilt and trauma surrounding a Sudanese family, denying us some conventions but allowing others. For a feature debut, Weekes has achieved a lot that many could only hope for.