Most horror is grounded in something real. In His House, the feature debut of writer-director Remi Weekes, it’s the terror of war-weary Sudan and the tired, huddled masses fleeing a brutal life that nonetheless shaped who they’ve become. Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) travel by land and sea, eventually sailing under the cloak of night to seek asylum on the shores of the U.K.. Their arrival is bittersweet, to say the least: An accident claims their daughter along the way, and they’re briefly held at a cold, uncaring detention center, before being granted filthy housing in a nondescript English town. What follows is a relatively potent spin on the haunted house story, buoyed by two stellar lead performances.
It’s early on that we learn how fond Bol is of insisting that this is their fresh start and that they must do whatever it takes to secure their citizenship and settle into this new life. They must mind their manners, keep their heads down and be the “good ones” Bol frequently, fervently assures the blank-faced authorities that look towards them. But soon, Bol and Rial begin to experience unaccountable horrors in the house, murderous apparitions that clamber out of the rotting walls and often take the form of a twisted version of the little girl they swore to protect and could not. From the get-go, one of the more clever aspects of Weekes’ central premise is how it gets around the oldest question posed by the haunted house genre: “Why don’t they just leave?” Here among the draconian lists of prohibitions and instructions that Bol and Rial must obey to the letter (including the expectation to assimilate into a community where they’re ordered not to seek work and to subsist solely on a small government handout) is that they must live where they’re told to.
An Englishman’s home is his castle, but an immigrant’s is seemingly his prison. So when Bol, bleeding and covered in scratches, is finally desperate enough to gently request a move, he’s greeted with bureaucratic resistance and open hostility. “It’s bigger than my house” mutters one of the social workers; in the world, the burden on the “good immigrant” is to be grateful for anything, no matter how unsuitable. Any complaint, however reasonable, is looked on as rocking the boat — and Bol and Rial are already more than haunted of what happens when boats are rocked. As powerful as this melding of themes is — the terrors of the new and unfamiliar compounded by visits from the restless ghosts of the old country, and the various types of survivor’s guilt a refugee may feel — Weekes’ horror filmmaking can’t quite keep. The film is at its strongest early on, in which we get a few good creepy scares, but over time they become more surface-level frights, slowly morphing to seem a bit rote. All of which leads up to a finale that’s more interesting for how it affects Bol and Rial’s fractured relationship than for what the menace actually is, or how it might be defeated. His House is at its most persuasively terrifying when it gets out of the house and into the existential terror of reality. Out there are aspects of the refugee experience that contain greater horrors and mortifications than all the ghostly humming and skittering presences in the walls could ever hope to suggest. Uneven yet still impressive, His House finds allegorical horror in the traumas of the immigrant experience for harrowing displays and nearly redundant scares.
His House is available to stream on Netflix
At a time when many young adults are trapped living at home with their parents, a movie about the opposite, about that moment when you’ve left the nest but aren’t sure you can fly, seems particularly poignant. The low-budget indie Shithouse, the feature debut of twenty-three-year-old writer-director Cooper Raiff that took home the top prize at this year’s virtual SXSW film festival, thoroughly mines that niche. The film might even be best classified as “crumblecore,” as crumbling is exactly what its beleaguered protagonist Alex (Raiff) is on the verge of doing. Six months into his freshman year of college in L.A. and 1,400 miles away from home, nineteen-year-old Alex is totally adrift and miserable. He’s made zero friends, has a stuffed animal who speaks to him in subtitles (at least for a little while) and a loathsome roommate (Logan Miller). His digital umbilical cord to his mom and younger sister in Dallas is rapidly unraveling.
Longing for a college experience that has thus far eluded him and desperate to work off the loneliness and acute sense of failure that plagues him, Alex decides to step out of his comfort zone and attend a fraternity party at the titular house. It’s from there that, over the course of a nuanced and ranging thirty-six hours, that Alex leads us on an excursion featuring too much drinking, awkward sexual encounters, late-night college discourse and stinging reproach among young people psychologically ill-equipped to handle the razor-sharp tools of independence. The emotionally nimble Raiff inhabits the role of Alex as comfortably as his character does an oft-present hoodie. There’s a high level of discomfort as we watch these young folks fumble and lash out, but it’s continually engulfed in such honesty that it only strikes a cord more.
It’s also relatively early on that Alex crosses paths with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a sophomore RA whom Alex quickly becomes infatuated with. Alex is largely inept at the art of small talk and foreplay, while Maggie is detached and transactional — Gelula makes Maggie simultaneously steely and vulnerable, alluring yet impossible to read. Yet somehow, there’s a spark between the two (or is it completely one-sided?), and like Alex, you’re never quite sure where that connection is headed. For much of the movie, you’re always interlocked with characters, being both unsure about their decisions yet your care for them continually grows. They both might be self-absorbed, rude to one another and sometimes frustratingly tough-tied, but isn’t that true of many nineteen-year-olds? (It is.) The real achievement for Raiff might be his ability to communicate how hard it is to communicate at that a college age. Though the film’s casual structure gets a little too plotty in its final act, it’s the gently shifting power dynamics between the characters, and a reversal of the traditional gender roles that sets up an unexpectedly moving resolution. As a whole, this is super-promising debut from someone with a clear gift for personalizing shared experiences (and revitalizing the clichés that tend to make us think that we’re tired of ourselves), Shithouse knows that growing up can be a lonely process, but one that most people only feel like they have to go through on their own. Refreshingly honest on the profound existential worries of early adulthood, Shithouse is a film that brings to light a filmmaker to watch in Cooper Raiff.
Shithouse is available on VOD