I am in love with Wunmi Mosaku but even she couldn’t propel this mediocre scare all the way to terror town. HIS HOUSE (2020), written and directed by Remi Weekes, just dropped on Netflix the day before Halloween, so I’ll try to avoid spoilers. It’s entertaining enough to handily avoid my never watch list, but I also can’t wholeheartedly recommend.
Let’s talk about why.
The basic premise of HIS HOUSE is totally creepy. A married couple from South Sudan are refugees in England where they’re released into temporary government housing. The house is filthy and worn-down but it’s big and it’s theirs. They’re haunted (metaphorically) by the loss of friends, family, and a daughter who seems to have been killed on the boat to England. They’re also haunted (literally) by a bunch of humanoid creepers which wife Rial (Mosaku) believes are sent by an “apeth,” aka witch man. Husband Bol (terrifically acted by Sope Dirisu) refuses to believe in the witch (despite seeing it all the time) and insists they assimilate to British culture and ignore the monstrous human wreckage that lurks in their walls. Matt Smith also makes a cute appearance as a case worker who comes off a little douchey but ultimately seems to be rooting for their success (I’m telling you, this cast is killer).
We’re checking all my boxes here. The premise seems ripe with possibility to be the kind of “elevated horror/drama” (I’m sorry I even wrote that phrase down) that’s been making waves lately among people who otherwise don’t actually like scary movies. You know what I mean, like THE BABADOOK (2014), or everything Jordan Peele does.
Gritty human backstory? Check. Stellar cast? Check. Attractively creepy filmography? You bet. Metaphorical nightmares that jive with but also complicate the literal nightmares? YES BUT ALSO THESE ARE THE PROBLEM.
My main issue with HIS HOUSE is also my issue with the recent THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020): it’s really more of a drama than a horror flick. The film spends a large amount of time on the characters’ relationship, and while that mostly really works for me, it starts to get a little ham-fisted toward the end. Once the metaphor is completely explained (a choice I don’t agree with) spending more time on character development feels like doubling up. The monsters-as-metaphor are already doing the work of exploring the relationship between Bol and Rial. We don’t need them to also state the moral out loud.
In case you’re wondering, the moral is: your metaphorical ghosts will haunt you and try to hurt you and only by facing them can you heal and also convince the British government to let you stay in England. This moral is said aloud by a character toward the end of the film…in case you missed it when they (spoiler, sorry) literally kill the witch guy that’s been asking for blood this whole time.
Now I understand that not everyone is me. Some people are out there watching movies and not even compulsively needing to tear them to shreds and figure out how they work in order to understand them and therefore enjoy them. (Weirdos.) Maybe the movie is actually more pleasurable if you don’t need to work too hard and they tell you what they’re trying to say instead of making you work for it. I buy it. I’ve never experienced it. But I believe you if you say you have.
However, in HIS HOUSE the monster-as-metaphor doesn’t just bore me with moralizing. It also breaks the scares. Since the movie is more drama than horror, the monsters show up early to make sure we have plenty of time to digest the characters’ traumas and terrors. Which means that by the big twisty reveal (which I will not spoil, but also I love) we have seen the scares out in the open too many times. They’re not that scary anymore. Cardinal rule #1 is broken. I really really want to be scared, but I’m just not. I’ve had too much time to think about how they built those meat-suits.
Overall this was still a fairly inoffensive watch. Not mind-blowing, but if you love this type of thoughtful meta-scare it may be worth checking out. Especially if you, like me, just really like Wunmi Mosaku.
On the other hand…
Does it pass?
- The Bechdel-Wallace Test: I say yes. Technically most of the non-Mosaku characters are unnamed but there are several who are women and they have substantive conversations.
- The Sexy Lamp Test: Yes.
- The Willis Test: …Sure. It might feel like an intentional gender-role swap to have the male character be the spiritually-connected one obsessed with a dead child while the female character avoids emotions and obsesses over remodeling…but a gender swap I could get into.
- The Ko Test: Yes!
- The Roxane Gay Test: YES!
Maybe you should go watch it after all.