“You will be sent to a home of our choosing.”
Although it came out in October, I had not gotten around to writing about “His House” (2020). Two weeks ago, when the British Academy of Film Television and Arts (BAFTA) announced its influential list of film nominations, this gem of a horror indie got a lot of love including a Best Actress salute to its star Wunmi Mosaku. The latter got preference over fellow Brit Carey Mulligan. That’s how good this film is. But don’t be deterred by it being labeled a horror film, although it does have some old-fashioned scares (no gore), it plays like a psychological thriller, and it’s very smart and relevant.
By now it’s well-known my affinity for this genre, especially if it’s done well. I love a well-constructed haunted house film. “The Haunting” (1963), “The Others” (2001), “Hereditary” (2018) and “The Babadook” (2014) are very special. What makes “His House” so enticing is the fact that the inhabitants do not have a choice but to stay within the confines of their ghost-ridden environment. The two main protagonists, a married couple, are displaced asylum seekers who have been given by the UK government their own place in the outskirts of London.
As I recently mentioned, being an immigrant means to feel that you’re caught between two cultures. There’s part of you that becomes lodged in the country you arrive into, and there’s another side of you that’s left behind. Yes, these two halves have trouble being consolidated. There is another aspect that I hadn’t thought about until I saw director Remi Weekes’ feature debut. There’s a sense of grief–as well as guilt–to overcome. The self-reproach over what you left behind. Working from a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, Weekes follows the traumatic assimilation process of Bol and Rial (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Mosaku). Their hazardous ocean crossing, during which their young daughter dies, is only the beginning of their tribulations, with Bol and Rial placed in a ramshackle house in an unwelcoming neighborhood. The daily microaggressions related to being a foreigner and being black are hostile enough, but apparitions from the past start to manifest in their dwelling. They don’t have much of a choice but to confront it all, for the alternative is deportation back to the place they were running away from. Weekes makes palpable the pressures, anxieties and paranoia of those trying to belong to a new country. Their emotions are intense and tactile.
Weekes does well tying his narrative to the genre packaging. We’re navigating within the landscape of the character’s minds. Bol and Rial escaped from South Sudan and after spending some time in detention they’re released on probation. A third character in the story is the namesake itself, their new living arrangement. It’s a two-floor building with decaying walls that are damp. The electricity and fixtures are barely working properly. The spartan furniture is stained and fallen apart. The front yard is littered with abandoned belongings. For Bol and Rial this presents a chance to start again, but every corner of it reminds them of their limbo-like status.
The marriage has been under duress and continues to be tested. When Bol wakes up from a nightmare at the beginning of the film, Rial awakens him. “What did you dream about?” she asks. “Our wedding day,” he responds. Bol sees the difficulties challenging them in their new environment. He notices the hostility in the next door neighbor’s look of disdain when they move in, but he insists on trying to make a go of it. He goes to a department store and buys clothing that are on a billboard to blend in. Rial finds herself lost in a maze-like feeling of disorientation — and literally in the alleys surrounding her house, where young black English kids tell her to go back to Africa. Bol insists they stop eating on the floor and use eating utensils. “All I can taste is the metal,” she protests.
At night there’s rustling and skittering sounds from the walls. They hear whispers. She tells him there’s an Apeth, a night witch, inside the structure. It rose from the ocean, and it has followed them here. Soon, Bol starts having vivid visions about those who drowned and were left behind in nooks and crevices. There’s a powerful section that reminded me of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the depiction of her dreams. Bol finds himself isolated — surrounded by water, the walls in ruins, and creatures rising from the depths.
Weekes keeps a tight control, choosing when to divulge a fact that will make you reassess everything you’ve seen up until now and understand a larger conflict that’s been gnashing at Rial and Bol. Cinematographer Jo Willems keeps the camera close to the actors, claustrophobically showing you their mental state, slowly leading us from a realistic world to the fantastical.
It’s got jolts, but there are rich metaphors and ideas at play.
Rial: “You think I can be afraid of ghosts.”
Available to stream on Netflix
Screenplay by Remi Weekes
Story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables
Directed by Remi Weekes
Starring Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu, Matt Smith
Writer and Director Remi Weekes on Bringing “His House” to the Screen
“I started making short films and commercials as a part of a directing duo called Tell No One and we were signed to share offices with two producers Aidan [Elliot] and Martin [Gentles]. So whenever I went into their office, I’d speak to them and talk about how one day I’d like to make feature films and they mentioned they had a project. They had the concept to make a horror film based on the immigrant experience. But for whatever reason, [the story’s original writers] Felicity [Evans] and Toby [Venables], were not quite getting to the point they needed to get to, and asked if I wanted to pitch them my take, my vision of the story. So I pitched them I guess what you see in the film, which is an intimate psychological horror about two people trying to survive after surviving. Trying to learn how to recover from their trauma…I was thinking, how will they make this? How will they put truth into this story? How can I make this personal to me in some way? I kind of drew on my experiences growing up in London and being a person of colour and being amongst a community that’s been othered. We’re often torn in two different ways – this one side of us that wants to try and assimilate and fit in and try and disappear within the culture. But then there’s the other side of us that wants to rebel from that, wants to be proud of our background and our history. We cling to that and those two sides are always battling within ourselves and I thought it would be really interesting to portray that within the married couple and have this being the emotional crux of the film. How, when you’re trying to move on, do you try and suppress your history, or do you lean into it?… We did a lot of research. It was important for us and for myself to try and base the story – although it is fictional – as much on real research as possible. So we researched the asylum process in the UK and also the migration journey from Africa to Europe and the history and folklore. [We also researched] the spooky stories they would tell each other and try and combine it into this kind of fable in the story.” (scifinow.co.uk)
Writing “His House”
It began as an idea in Felicity’s head – the result of our, by this time, regular musings on what would make a good horror film. We’ve been screenwriters – together and solo – for nearly 18 years now, trying our luck with both TV and film, often (but not always) pitching some twist on the horror genre. We spent the first eight of those years getting interest here and there, attending some great meetings with exciting people, and for the most part, not getting commissioned. But perseverance pays off. Right now, the tally stands at four commissioned feature film screenplays and three commissioned TV pilots with series outlines. Much more than this gets written, of course, and much less actually gets made. What ultimately makes the difference is probably more blind luck than anything else, but the journey of His House may offer some insights, nonetheless. It was 2015 when Felicity started to wonder about new ways to approach the ‘haunted house’ story – a horror sub-genre that we both loved, but which had become rather tired. We’d recently seen James Wan’s Insidious and The Conjuring, both of which had sparked renewed interest in the genre and provided some great, scary entertainment, but which still essentially trod the same old ground. She had been reading about an old house in St Osyth, Essex, known as ‘The Cage’ – reputedly the most haunted house in England. Its rather ominous name was a key to the building’s history; it began life as a medieval prison and had been a place of imprisonment for witches in the 1500s, including the notorious Ursula Kemp, later hanged for witchcraft. Local woman Vanessa Mitchell had bought the house in 2004, allegedly oblivious to its dark past. By 2009, she and her new baby son had been driven out. Doors would slam, latches would rattle, footsteps came up the stairs towards her room at night. Once, while two friends were visiting, fresh blood appeared in the walls. Then, one night, while she was ironing in the ‘prison room’ her son’s toy started up by itself and a threatening figure appeared at the top of the stairs. Fearing for the safety of herself and her son, she left. She put the house on the market, but no one would buy it. And it was at this point that Felicity read about her plight. (The house did finally sell, in September 2019, just as His House was being completed.)
The story raised a question: who would live in such a house, and why? Clearly, if you had the option, you wouldn’t – which is so often the issue with haunted house movies. Why don’t they just leave? Felicity started to think about people who couldn’t leave, who don’t have the luxury of choice, and somehow that connected with contemporary news reports about asylum seekers – Syrian refugees were the big story at the time – being housed in dire conditions by private companies contracted by the UK government. Although the media tend to lump together ‘asylum seekers’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘migrants’ the three groups are distinct different. Asylum seekers are, quite specifically, people who are requesting refuge because their lives are under threat in their own country. To think people do this casually, for personal gain, or on a whim, is to misrepresent it completely. They have lost everything, and often have risked what little they do have – their lives – on a traumatic and dangerous journey to get to a place of safety. For many, the UK represents that: a place of safety, humanity, and fairness. The reality is often quite different. Apart from the few charities that work on their behalf, no one stands up for these people, and often they find themselves housed in filthy conditions – conditions that would spark tabloid outrage were they UK citizens – with few rights, no recourse and under constant threat of deportation. And so, these two quite distinct ideas came together as one. It seemed to make perfect sense. We’d lost count of the number of times we’d seen a film begin with an American family arriving at a big old house, a young daughter regard the grim edifice with gloom, and the father say with somewhat forced cheer to his uncertain wife how they were going to ‘make this work’. Of course, they wouldn’t. Always they had some relationship trauma that they brought with them – something broken that this was supposed to fix – and always this would be their undoing. But what if that trauma was something much worse, much more substantial, and far more difficult to fix? Something really meaningful, from the real world? We discussed it, knocked it back and forth and took it through various incarnations. At one point, it was a period piece set in the 1970s (we’d just seen the excellent drama series The Enfield Haunting, about the celebrated Enfield poltergeist case) and the family in the house were Ugandan Asians. But, much as we liked that 70s setting, we rejected that idea. The real story was now. There was no need to set it at a further remove.
The precise composition of the family also changed. Early on, an adult brother was part of the mix, and various other characters came in and out of the frame. Always, though, there was a central dynamic at the story’s core: parents, children whose lives were (hopefully) ahead of them, and loss. Finally, we settled on Syrian refugees – two parents and two children, one of whom had survived the journey and one who had not. And now, we were ready to pitch the idea.
At the time, I had been taking a break from screenwriting and had instead been writing books (that’s another story), but there were a couple of producers we knew who were receptive to new horror ideas – especially those that were trying to do something a little different. Ed King and Martin Gentles, who set up Starchild Pictures, had in fact given me my first screenwriting commission in 2010 – not a horror movie at all, but a kind of heist movie with a twist called Seven Thieves. It never got made, but the development process with them was great, and we’d ended up with a really strong screenplay at the end of it. We’d pitched a few ideas to them since, none of which had really taken off, but some time in 2015 Felicity had coaxed me out of the medieval world of my novels to put a new list of horror movie proposals together and give it another go. The Welcome, as it was then called, was just one of the ideas that emerged during that period. It struck a chord with Ed and Martin immediately. We met, we talked, they invited us to send them a more fleshed out version (it’s always an ‘invitation’ at this point – if producers specifically ask you to do something, then they have to pay you). We expanded it, and wrote a more detailed treatment (film-speak for a synopsis). They gave their feedback, pitched in suggestions and ideas, and the shape of the thing continued to shift. At this stage, writers find themselves in a delicate position. No agreement has been formally made, no contract signed, no money guaranteed. It could come to nothing – yet, clearly, you want to give it all you can. Whether it goes ahead or not ultimately depends on your efforts, so you are constantly trying to balance the delivery of this work-on-a-promise-but-no-pay with the day-to-day needs of earning a living. It can be hard, but this is when you put in the extra hours. These chances may not come again. Finally, towards the end of 2016, with the idea having been back and forth several times, they felt ready to commit, and in December we signed a contract to write the screenplay. It was real now – which meant we really had to deliver on it. We can make this work…” (themomentmagazine.com)
About Director of Photography Jo Willems
Born in Belgium in 1970, Willems moved with his family to the Central African Republic at the age of 14. While attending a French school there, he became interested in photography, taking many photos with his father’s Leica M6. He also nurtured a budding interest in cinema at a local video store run by a French cinephile. In 1989, Willems moved to Brussels to study filmmaking at Saint Lucas Art School, where one of his instructors was cinematographer Willy Stassen, current president of the Belgian Society of Cinematographers (SBC). He followed this with a postgraduate course at London Film School, and then started working in the industry as an electrician. Willems recalls working for Slawomir Idziak, PSC, during this time as one of the formative experiences of his career. Three years later, Willems landed his first cinematography job, a short film, and that led to shooting music videos and commercials. Around this time he met director David Slade, and the two formed a friendship and creative partnership that continues to this day. Their first feature collaboration, Hard Candy, attracted attention at the Sundance Film Festival, and their work together since has included the film 30 Days of Night and the pilot for Awake. Willems has also enjoyed multiple collaborations with director Francis Lawrence, including three Hunger Games movies: Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2. His feature credits also include Neil Burger’s Limitless, P.J. Hogan’s Confessions of a Shopaholic and Hunter Richards’ London. (theasc.com)
About Composer Roque Baños
Roque Baños was born in Jumilla (Murcia) in 1968. He began his musical education at the “Conservatorio Superior de Música de Murcia” where he finished elementary level, specializing in saxophone, obtaining Honors in both Music Theory and in Saxophone. Later on, in 1986, he moved to Madrid, completing his studies at the Madrid Royal Conservatory of Music with honors and several merit mentions, earning degrees in Saxophone, Piano, Music Theory, Harmony, Counterpoint, Composition and Conducting. In 1993, after receiving a grant from the Ministry of Culture, he moved to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music, majoring in Music Composition for Film and Jazz. At Berklee he received the “Robert Share Award” for demonstrating the highest musical-dramatic level in the area of film music composition, and the “Achievement Award” for his outstanding performance abilities. He graduated “Summa Cum Laude” in the fields of Film Scoring and Performance in 1995. His work as a film composer has been distinguished with numerous awards and nominations, both with national and international recognition, including fifteen nominations for the Goya Awards. In 2003, he won Best Original Song for “Sevillana para Carlos”, of Salomé film, by Carlos Saura. In 2008, he won Best Original Score for 13 roses, by Emilio Martínez-Lázaro and in 2009, won Best Original Score for Oxford Murders, by Alex de la Iglesia. He also has six other nominations for the Spanish Recording Academy of Music Awards, having obtained it three times, and with fifteen others to the Cinema Writers Circle Awards, from which he won the award four times. He was awarded the Ricardo Franco Awards, throughout his career, at the prestigious Malaga Spanish Film Festival in 2012. And in recent years, especially between 2013 and 2016, he has been awarded numerous international awards for the soundtracks of the films like Evil Dead, Risen, etc. In his curriculum vitae, he also emphasizes his work as an orchestra conductor. Performing his own works and with great public success, he has given numerous concerts in various theatres and auditoriums throughout Spain and abroad, such as Katowice (Poland). He currently resides between Los Angeles and Madrid. Among his latest works of exclusively American production are, the aforementioned, Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe and The Girl in the Spider’s Web by Fede Álvarez, Come Play by Chacob Jase, Oldboy by the prestigious director Spike Lee, In the Heart of the Sea by the acclaimed Ron Howard, Risen by Kevin Reynolds, His House by Remi Weekes, The Miracle Season by Sean McNamara and The Commuter by Jaume Collet-Serra. (roquebanos.com)
About Writer and Director Remi Weekes
Remi Weekes is a British director and screenwriter who has recently directed his debut feature, HIS HOUSE for New Regency and BBC Films. HIS HOUSE premiered at Sundance in January 2020 where it was acquired by Netflix for distribution. Remi directed his first short, ‘Tickle Monster’, commissioned by Film4 for Channel4 and which was accepted at SXSW Film 2017 for its US Premiere. Remi’s work in commercial campaigns has garnered awards at the Cannes Advertising Festival and exhibitions worldwide from the Guggenheim Museum to the British Film Institute. As well as his most recent campaign for The National Trust, he has directed films for the likes of Nordstrom, Replay, H&M, Baileys, 02, and Swarovski. His experimental films commissioned by Nowness such as ‘Mine’ and ‘Umbrella’ have also been greatly applauded by the advertising community. Accomplished in his technical approach in-camera and in post-production, Remi’s filmmaking guarantees an element of magic. His work is artfully crafted and truly conceptual. (independenttalent.com)