Can the refugee experience be re-told as a horror story?
That’s the idea behind the British film His House, in which two young asylum seekers from South Sudan struggle to adjust to a new life in a rundown house in a small English town, where they feel a terrible evil lurks behind their walls.
It stars Gangs of London actor Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Bafta winner Wunmi Mosaku, as well as The Crown’s Matt Smith, who plays the officer tasked with housing the couple.
It’s British director Remi Weekes’ first feature film, and it’s based on extensive research into the asylum system.
“One thing stood out, which was that during the asylum process, you’re forced into such draconian rule,” he explains. “As an asylum seeker, you’re given accommodation, but you’re not allowed to leave. You’re given a small amount of money, but you can’t work. You have people who have been running away who have to come to terms with their new home. It’s a gruelling welcome.
“When so many horror films are focused on the idea of a haunted house, I thought it was an interesting way to tell a horror story. When you have a house that you cannot leave, it becomes a prison.
“The specific story isn’t autobiographical,” he adds, “but I did a lot of research, especially on how immigrants felt coming into the country for the first time, and I myself come from a mixed background in London. It’s about trying to find your sense of belonging in this country, and the pressures and anxieties and also the paranoia you often feel.”
The couple, Bol and Rial, have fled war, and are confronted, not just with hostility from some of their neighbours, but with their own trauma and ghosts that threaten them from within the house. They have also lost a child, who drowned as they crossed the sea.
The film’s release comes during the week when four migrants from the same family drowned when their boat capsized in the Channel. Two of them were children, while another child, a 15 month old boy, is still missing.
Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù says he believes that the refugee experience “really is a horror story” and that re-telling it within the horror genre can make it resonate with a wider audience, rather than trivialising it.
“The trauma and risk these people put themselves through in the search for a better life, and knowing where they’ve come from, it’s not a situation anyone would wish on ourselves, or on our friends, so I think it’s important we empathise with them,” he says. “I hope we create a society that will save people from living this story.”
‘We keep on thinking of displaced people in terms of numbers,” explains Wunmi Mosaku, “rather than seeing them as individuals. We need to put faces and names to people. Reading the script for the first time, I was just really horrified, and I read the story from the safety of my own home.”
The film was shot on a housing estate at Tilbury in Essex, with some of the most powerful scenes featuring Matt Smith playing Mark, their case worker, who explains to the couple that they cannot, under any circumstances, leave the house assigned to them.
“I think Matt just read the script and wanted to be involved,” Weekes says. “He is such a genuinely lovely guy that I think he also liked the idea of supporting a first-time filmmaker. He’s a really wonderful actor.
“One of my favourite moments in the film is seeing Matt and Ṣọpẹ́ sparring in Matt’s ‘office.’ It was electrifying. It’s a reason why a director directs, to watch actors of that level interacting with each other.”
His House premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, and like St Maud, another British horror film released recently, seems to suggest that mental trauma and anxiety are pivotal themes behind modern British horror stories. It’s suggested that Maud, played by Morfydd Clark, develops a religious mania after a breakdown, Bol and Rial are traumatised by their past experiences.
“I think that’s what horror is so wonderful at,” says Weekes. “I think it’s really hard for any artist to articulate what goes on in someone’s head. Horror can excel because it visualises and makes what’s internal real and explicit.”
“It’s also this idea of the horrors that we do as humans to other humans – to our brethren – that was so powerful to me,” adds Mosaku. “They’re scarier than monsters, or a haunted house, or the gore, because they’re based in truth.
“I think this is a really great genre to tether people to the horrors that we as humanity put on other people and expect them to live through it. We expect them to fend for themselves.”
His House is available on Netflix from 30 October