In fantastic new Netflix chiller His House, the horrors are in the walls. There are whispering children, creatures scurrying, ugly holes opening into plunging darkness. A slowly unfurling roll of wallpaper portends terror. Flickering light-bulb? Check, that too.
Soon, one half of the couple who’ve newly taken up residence is going mad with fear.
It’s a basic fright-night set-up in a basic house in a sink estate in Anytown UK, somewhere near London and the English Channel. But this isn’t your regular haunted house, nor your regular horror film. His House is a chillingly effective allegory where the demons in the fixtures and fittings are also the demons chasing the new occupants, a husband and wife who’ve fled death in their war-torn homeland of South Sudan.
His House stars Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù (Gangs of London) as Bol and Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country) as Rial. During the crossing from Africa to Europe, their overcrowded boat sank. Most of the passengers, including their daughter Nyagak, drowned. Once in the UK, the couple are held in a detention centre for months before finally being given “bail” and accommodation of their own.
They have £74 a week to survive on, can’t work to supplement that income and if they break any of the myriad rules (“no candles no smoking no guests no pets no parties no board games no friends no balls no games”) risk having their application for asylum cancelled and being deported.
“You must have hit the jackpot,” their case-worker, who’s played by Matt Smith (The Crown), says without sarcasm as he shows them round their squat-like hovel. He encourages them to “fit in” here in Britain. “Make it easy for people. Be one of the good ones.”
“We will be new here,” answers Bol.
Given what they’ve been through, that won’t be so easy.
Bol is wrestling with PTSD, and “the loss of the child, and what they put her through,” explains Dìrísù, Zooming in from his home in Highgate, north London. “And also the guilt of being maybe the only ones who made it – there were a lot of people in that boat who drowned at sea. [The story] is a really interesting exploration of the lengths people will go to survive.
“And once you reach the ‘promised land’, as it were, and you have a moment to not be running on adrenaline, then to reconcile things you’ve been through, and the things you’ve done in order to stay alive… It’s fucking hard, man,” Dìrísù exhales.
These are the individual human stories behind the catch-all phrase “the migrant crisis”. To tell them as accurately as possible, writer-director Remi Weekes and his team “collated lots of testimonies from people who’d made the crossings, the conditions there were exposed to, the fear that was a constant state they were living in while they were making the journey.
“We also had a man from South Sudan called Mawan, who was actually from the same tribe, Dinka, as the characters we were representing,” explains Dìrísù, 29, who was born in Edgware, north London to Nigerian parents. “So he taught us Dinka, made sure our pronunciations were correct. It was really important for us to be able to speak the language of these characters on screen.”
For he and Mosaku, it was crucial “that we were really honest and accurate in our storytelling. Because these migrants are people forced into making these crossings, that we talk a lot about, and we hear about in the news every so often, but we never hear their voices.
“So in this instant when we are giving these people a voice, we wanted to make sure this was their voice. We weren’t just playing dress up for the sake of a Netflix film.
“We had a responsibility,” he continues. “Because we don’t get a variety of stories of Blackness, and a diversity of stories of migrant experiences, this is one of their opportunities to be heard. So we want to make sure their voice is amplified.”
Hence the narrative details threaded into the horror. These aren’t just any old ghosts haunting the couple. They’ve been followed to a dilapidated hovel in a grey Home Counties housing estate by an apeth, a night witch in Dinka culture.
“Before long the walls would whisper the spells of the apeth,” Rial says to her husband, recounting a tale from her childhood in her village. “From the shadows, the dead would come. The apeth would not stop until he had consumed the man entirely.”
“We don’t have a plurality of these stories,” Dìrísù says, “so specificity is really important. Unfortunately, there are still loads of people out there who still think Africa is one homogenous county. So being very specific and saying that they were from South Sudan, and that they were Dinka, was really important.”
As well as the urgency of the refugee crisis – that is, crises that are happening to these desperate people giving everything they own to people traffickers and cramming into rickety boats and unventilated lorries – writer-director Weekes also framed his debut feature in a wider context. He explained to Dìrísù that a lot of the “essence” of the film came from “the experience of being a Black person in a white country, be that the UK or the US. And that feeling of living within a community or society that doesn’t wholly accept you. There is this feeling of being othered.”
Did Dìrísù relate to that feeling?
“It’s hard not to. It’s not necessarily something you grow up every day [thinking]: ‘Oh woe is me, I’m Black in a white country.’ It’s not that. But there are moments where you are reminded that you are Black. That can be really difficult for someone who feels – ”
The actor – who’s previously worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and is currently shooting literary adaptation Mothering Sunday with Olivia Colman, Colin Firth and Josh O’Connor – stops, then starts again.
“Like, my parents came over, I was born here, I’ve never lived in any other country my whole life.
“So I feel British. But I also know that, if it wasn’t for the way that I was raised, I would definitely be reminded that I am Nigerian as well. I have a lot of pride in that because of my family and the connection I have to family back home. But, yeah, there have been countless instances over the course of my life where I’ve been reminded that, even though I may have a British passport, there are people within the country who don’t agree with that identification.”
Dìrísù’s connection with his heritage and the country of his parents’ birth runs deep and strong. When I ask about the SARS-related protests in Nigeria, he replies: “I’m really, really proud of my friends and family – and also just young Nigerians in general – for their forward front-footedness, and their bravery. If I wasn’t working and I was already out in Nigeria, I kinda wish I was there [with them]. Because I do hope that this is a real turning point in the country’s history.
“There is so much positivity going around about what Nigeria can be in the right hands. So, yeah, I’m immensely proud of my countrymen. And I think I speak for a lot of people in the diaspora in the UK and the US when I say that I’m really positive and excited about the possibility of change – rather than just being beaten down by what the world looks like right now.”
When we speak – on Halloween – His House has been on Netflix for less than 24 hours, and in the UK it’s the sixth most popular offering on the platform. Dìrísù is buzzed about that, and about watching it with his family for the first time the previous evening. “My mum and dad were really transfixed, but my sister was terrified, to the point where she wasn’t able to watch loads of it – and had to have a shower!” he laughs.
Such is the power of this New Horror: full of terror, but also freighted with urgent racial, social and political points. His House should be viewed in the same vein as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Lovecraft Country, the recent HBO series in which Mosaku also starred. In all three, endemic, systemic racism is the real horror in the walls.
Or, as Dìrísù points out, “what the horror in those, and in this film, have done is take something that is happening and give it an external face.
“And sometimes the face is already visible without us needing to make a horror film about it – Trump can be a face of horror to people who are not white. The Conservative government in the UK can be as well – [or] general Western world apathy towards the struggles that they initiated in Third World countries, in Africa and East Asia. Those countries would not be as unstable without historical Western influence.
“So, yeah, there is a lot of trauma to draw from. But there is also a lot of joy in the Black experience. In my career I always, always, always want there to be balance. So as well as lay bare [those backstories] for audiences, I want to celebrate Blackness.”
‘His House’ is on Netflix now. Maybe don’t watch it alone