At a pivotal point in “His Room” a character has a sobering revelation. “Your ghosts follow you. They never leave. They live with you.” It’s a powerful line that gets to the heart of this scintillating new horror thriller from first-time feature filmmaker Remi Weekes. “His Room” is an exciting debut that teases you with some of the horror genre’s most well-worn tropes only to surprise you with its big ideas and potent real-world relevancy.
Wisely snatched up by Netflix prior to its Sundance premiere, “His Room” is one of the craftiest horror movies of 2020. It’s a thematically bold genre film that takes an unexpectedly sharp look at the immigrant experience while delving into themes of grief, denial, racism, and survivor’s guilt among other things. Weekes (who also wrote the screenplay) embraces horror elements but doesn’t rely on them. Instead, the terror in his film is as much true-to-life as it is supernatural. And some of the most frightening scenes happen outside the walls of a seemingly haunted council house.
The film is anchored by two sublime performances from Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku. They play Bol and Rial, a Sudanese couple who in the film’s opening moments are attempting a harrowing escape from their war-torn homeland. Their journey is perilous – dodging gunfire in cramped buses, long rides in the backs of pickups, and taking a small boat across the turbulent sea that ends up claiming their young daughter’s life. They’re picked up and brought to the United Kingdom but not before a heavy emotional toll had been taken.
After being detained for an unspecified length, Bol and Rial are granted refugee status and given a ramshackle house in a council estate outside of London. Though stared at by neighbors, ridiculed by local kids, and treated as second-class citizens at every turn, the couple are determined to turn their new place into a home. Bol is the more optimistic and resolute. He quickly buries everything from their past and pours all of himself into adapting. Rial finds it harder to let go and struggles to conform to their new way of life.
It’s all vividly captured when Bol comes home to find Rial has prepared a classic Sudanese meal. The romantic dinner is spread across a blanket on the floor to flickering candlelight. “Wonderful” Bol says as he sits, “but maybe next time we can use the table.” He then springs up and goes into the kitchen bringing back silverware. “All I can taste is the metal” says Rial. Bol dismissively replies “You’ll get used to it.” Its an eye-opening scene that highlights the fracture between this husband and wife.
Meanwhile both Bol and Rial begin hearing noises in the walls, mostly when they’re alone and mostly at night. Each of their encounters slowly grow more terrifying. Before long the couple are plunged into their own hellish purgatories, each hearing and seeing very different things. Bol refuses to budge and slowly begins to unravel as the hauntings intensify. Rial is convinced that a devilish witch has followed them from Sudan and brought with it a horde of malevolent spirits. But as Weekes digs deeper we begin to wonder, was it really a witch who filled their walls with ghosts?
That may sound like standard haunted house fare, but as connections are made particularly in the film’s chilling yet gripping finish, it’s clear that Weekes has far more on his mind than bumps in the walls and creepy figures in the shadows. And he surprises with his sure-handed visual approach whether it’s the penetrating closeups or his effective use of lighting. There’s also one wickedly surreal scene that I won’t spoil but that really leaves a mark without feeling jarring or self-indulgent.
“His House” is easily one of the best filmmaking debuts of the year and another reminder that there is more to the horror genre than cheap gimmicks and jump scares. It’s a technically, narratively, and thematically rich movie with an earnest affection for its genre but with much, much more going on under its surface. It’s a nice grab for Netflix and hopefully great exposure for one the year’s best horror features.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS