Back in our early days of film blogging (five whole years ago!), I found myself a little baffled by the ecstatic critical reception of the indie horror pic We Are Still Here. It was a decent enough genre exercise, one that indulged in the exact kind of 1970s nostalgia that would make its surface aesthetics immediately attractive to horror nerds. Still, it was excessively faithful to the structure & tropes of A Haunted House Movie to the point where I wasn’t sure what distinguished it as anything special. I wrote: “Every haunted house cliché you can think of makes an appearance in its brief 84-minute runtime. Strange noises spook new homeowners. Photographs move seemingly on their own. An old town of creepy local yokels conspire against haunted newcomers. A skeptical husband doubts his legitimately-spooked wife’s concerns. A séance backfires. A monster appears in the backseat of a moving car. Innocent house guests are possessed by demons. Creepy children get involved. The film even has the nerve to show a baseball slowly rolling down basement stairs. It’s all here.”
I’m looking back to that early Swampflix review because I am once again confronted with a critically beloved indie horror that’s rigorously faithful to the tropes of the haunted house genre. His House does not repeat every single haunted house cliché from We Are Still Here, but it comes pretty damn close. In terms of tone & narrative its payoffs are familiar to that genre tradition going at least as far back as 1927’s proto-Old Dark House horror The Cat and the Canary. However, I did find it much easier to determine what makes this movie special within that larger tradition than I did back when this happened in 2015. When thinking about the going-through-the-motions scares of We Are Still Here, I asked “Are there any ways left for the haunted house genre to surprise us?” His House answers that question decisively, with the same tactic that titles like Blood Quantum, Zombi Child, and The Girl With All the Gifts used to reinvigorate the similarly overworked tropes of the zombie genre: by shifting the cultural POV and the purpose of the central metaphor. You’ve seen these exact story beats & jump scares before, but never in this exact cultural context.
His House repurposes the basic components of A Haunted House Movie by recontextualizing them within a Sudanese refugee story, something I’d be surprised to learn has been done before. Two Sudanese victims of civil war (Sope Dirisu & Wunmi Mosaku) seek asylum in England, where they’re treated like prisoners on parole before they’re fully allowed to assimilate into the culture of their new “home.” They’re restricted by the government in where they can work, how they can publicly behave, who they can associate with and, most importantly, where they can live. The shitty, vermin-infested apartment they’re assigned by the government isn’t haunted by the colonialist crimes of their new homeland, but rather by the horrors that they narrowly escaped in their journey to asylum. Fellow refugees who didn’t complete the voyage violently haunt the couple, both as an expression of general survivor’s guilt and as revenge for undignified betrayals they committed along the way out of desperate self-preservation. They arrive in England with everything they own in a couple gnarled trash bags, hopeful that the horrors of their journey are behind them. Instead, their recent past haunts them in vicious, unrelenting stabs; and they’re expected to smile through the pain when in public so as to appear affable to their new, xenophobic neighbors.
To be clear, His House is not only thrilling for its purposeful application of Haunted House tropes to a newfound metaphor. Its scares are genuinely, consistently effective throughout, offering up some of this year’s most memorably creepy horror imagery as the couple is tormented by visible, persistent ghosts. It’s just that applying those traditional scares to a clear thematic anchor really does set the film apart from fellow traditional Haunted House exercises like We Are Still Here. I never had to ask myself what the purpose of repeating & reshaping those well-worn genre tropes was here, because the film is open & explicit about what it’s doing from the start. I don’t know that it’s one of my personal favorite horror titles of 2020 or anything, but I do understand its thematic purpose & critical reception this time around. At the very least, it’s got to be one of the best films to date that addresses the cultural horrors of Brexit-era immigration bigotry. It’s right alongside Paddington 2 in that regard, at least in terms of delivering something much more emotionally & thematically potent than what you’d expect given the recency of its subject and the familiarity of its genre’s tones & tropes. Unlike Paddington 2, however, it’s also scary as fuck.