Review: The repressed return with a vengeance in the well-acted refugee thriller ‘His House’

Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, left, and Wunmi Mosaku in the movie "His House."
Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù, left, and Wunmi Mosaku in the movie “His House.”
(Aidan Monaghan / Netflix)

The two lead actors in “His House” are so good, so wrenchingly persuasive as a South Sudanese refugee couple lost in a strange and inhospitable land, you almost wish they’d been allowed to play that drama straight, unimpeded by all the slashing knives and vengeful phantoms that await them. Not that the phantoms aren’t first-rate too: Like deranged children playing a particularly murderous game of peekaboo, they shriek and skitter within the walls of a dilapidated British public-housing estate that Bol (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are forced to call home after their perilous ocean voyage.

That crossing claimed the life of their daughter, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba), a tragedy that Rial clings to as forcefully as she does the bead necklace that is one of the girl’s only surviving possessions. For his part, Bol seems eager to move on: “We have grieved enough,” he tells his wife, and as callous and unfeeling as that sounds, on some level it carries the ring of truth. Their grief, and their trauma, have been boundless; we see it in the brief, splintered flashbacks to their war-torn homeland and their journey to the U.K., a country that seems only superficially safer. After spending some time in detention, they are introduced by a smirking social worker (Matt Smith) to their miserable new abode, where those lethal apparitions soon pop into view, emerging like shivery manifestations of some deep, unarticulated shame.

A crafty feature debut for the English writer-director Remi Weekes, “His House” is one of those return-of-the-repressed freakouts in which suspense and social conscience effectively breathe as one. That’s the idea, anyway. Based on a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, it’s a calculated mix of migrant drama and B-movie thrills that can feel reminiscent of movies as different as Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” and especially Romola Garai’s “Amulet,” both of which similarly turned on mistaken identities, grim backstories and profoundly rotten real estate. And like those films, it’s at its strongest early on, when the genre mechanics have yet to fully kick in and the creepiness is mainly a matter of implication.

Wunmi Mosaku in the movie "His House."
(Aidan Monaghan / Netflix)

The script’s cleverest gambit is to blur our sense of what kind of movie we might be watching — a thriller about a haunted house or a portrait of the dehumanization of the refugee experience? — and to suggest that there might be no meaningful difference. The restrictions to which Bol and Rial are subjected are hellishly draconian to begin with: Essentially treated as prisoners released on bail, they’re unable to apply for work and forced to subsist on a government-supplied pittance. And they have no choice but to accept the home that’s been almost spitefully foisted upon them, as if their social workers knew all too well the evil pulsing within those blackened, moldering walls.

That sense of entrapment never fades even when the characters wander outdoors: In one disquieting scene, the camera follows an anxious Rial around her new neighborhood, a garbage-strewn labyrinth of drab, identical-looking buildings, and sends her into an unnerving encounter with a few kids who subject her to xenophobic taunts. Some of these moments are filmed from a distance in sinuous, uninterrupted takes, providing a stark visual contrast with Bol and Rial’s time at home, where the ghouls’ frightening attacks are shot with murky, claustrophobic intimacy and cut together in a nightmarish frenzy. (The cinematography is by Jo Willems, the editing by Julia Bloch.)

The jump scares are pulled off with skill and proficiency. So are the occasional reminders of that ocean crossing, replete with hallucinatory imagery of rotting zombies and rolling waves — a grim, effective reminder of the migrant crisis’ human toll that pays off poignantly at the story’s close. “His House” is about, among other things, the survivor’s guilt that plagues Bol and Rial, who have witnessed horrors that their smug local handlers can scarcely imagine and who are nonetheless made to feel like entitled ingrates when Bol dares to speak up and request a change of address. You suspect, of course, that the demonic entity on the premises — whom Rial refers to alternately as “a beast” and “a witch” — would follow them wherever they went.

Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù in the movie "His House."
Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù in the movie “His House.”
(Aidan Monaghan / Netflix)

“You think I can be afraid of ghosts?” Rial rebukes Bol at one point, reminding him of her knowledge of the spiritual realm and forcing him to confront the fact that their most dangerous demons lurk within. It’s an apt line, but it also points up some of the limitations of “His House” itself. That surface-level frights can signify something deeper, can reflect a society or an individual’s hidden trauma and pain, is a notion as old as the horror genre itself. But those frights can sometimes feel like a distraction, a display of showmanship that doesn’t feel deeply rooted in the characters’ psychological torment.

And in the end, it’s no match for the depth of the interplay between Dìrísù and Mosaku, sometimes achieved with little more than a silent, reproachful gaze by firelight. Bol is full of bluster and determination, eager to embrace their new home and assimilate into a culture that barely tolerates them. Rial is made of more defiant and ultimately sterner stuff, drawing on her memories of home — and of the specters that have haunted them along the way — to push back against her husband’s fearful, manipulative hand. The implications of the title might be obvious, though by the end, the movie shrewdly affirms, what was once his house has become indelibly hers.

‘His House’

In English and Dinka dialogue

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Available Oct. 30 via Netflix