His House (2020)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Diamantino (2019)

In the opening sequence of Diamantino, our bimbo antihero achieves a euphoric state of internal bliss while doing the one thing he’s good for: playing soccer. With all the world’s eyes on his every move, the greatest living footballer dissociates from his game-winning drive by mentally escaping to his Happy Place. Glittery pink storm clouds flood the screen, accompanied by stadium-scale puppies galloping along with our titular galoot as he scores the goal of a lifetime. There are two ways to achieve that kind of internal peace & total calm: years of practiced meditation, or starting off already empty-headed. The beautiful sweet idiot Diamantino falls firmly in that latter category, and the tragedy of the film is him losing that transcendent state of blissful ignorance (a natural gift he refers to as “The Fluffy Puppies”) as soon as he gains just a little knowledge of how awful the world truly is.

In that way, Diamantino is like a hotter, more chiseled version of Chauncey Gardner, the Peter Sellers character from Being There. Sexy enough to know he can get away with living an exclusively shirtless life but so intellectually sheltered from the real world he doesn’t realize how bizarre it is that he’s an adult virgin, this Zoolander-level underwear model of a man is too naïve to be real. And so, he functions mostly as a political allegory. While yachting with his overly controlling family who leach off his wealth, Diamantino discovers the existence of political refugees – spotting a raft of starving, petrified victims of war drifting towards the Portuguese coast. This revelation that the displacement of refugees and general human suffering are real-life social ills completely blows his feeble mind, which was previously only occupied by a narcissistic self-obsession and an ability to play soccer real good. The fluffy puppies disappear and Diamantino loses his sexy footballer mojo, making the only possible triumph of the film a path back to blissful ignorance.

Once exposed to the existence of human suffering & political turmoil, Diamantino falls down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theory intrigue, allowing the movie to take wild, unsubtle jabs at the disasters of MAGA & Brexit culture in particular. As soccer is described to be the true “opium of the masses,” disparate groups like the Portuguese Secret Service, The Ministry of Propaganda, and the James Bond-style corporate entity Lamborghini Genetics all conspire to exploit Diamantino’s celebrity for their own political gain. Meanwhile, the beefy oaf just wants to make himself feel better about the refugee crisis so he can frolic in the pink clouds of his own empty head with the Fluffy Puppies again. It’s a delightfully absurd political farce, bolstered by surreally cheap CGI and a peculiar sense of humor that alternates between wholesomeness & cruelty at a breakneck pace. The whole thing just winds up feeling like a fantasy movie adaptation of this meme (which I swear I mean as a compliment):

-Brandon Ledet