Terror strikes beyond cheap jump scares in one of the best new horror movies of the Halloween season as an immigrant couple seeking asylum in the United Kingdom discovers a sinister presence lurking within the walls of their new home.
In Remi Weekes' haunting feature debut "His House," acquired by Netflix out of Sundance and streaming as of Friday, husband and wife Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku of "Lovecraft Country") are still shaken after fleeing war-torn South Sudan when they're assigned to a decaying unit in a public housing estate outside of London.
There, amid hostile neighbors and a daunting new city, Rial struggles to adjust to their new life as Bol eagerly forges ahead. But shadowy specters and strange visions begin to plague the couple as ghosts from their past threaten their future, and the psychological unraveling that ensues is at once heart-wrenching, harrowing and gorgeously nightmarish.
The filmmaker, who cites Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Apichatpong Weerasethakul among his influences, grew up loving and devouring cinema — but rarely saw perspectives and experiences like his own on screen.
Making the jump from short-form and commercial production to his feature film directing debut, Weekes scripted "His House" from a story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, writing cultural specificity into his lead characters as South Sudanese refugees and drawing on his own background and the experiences of multigenerational immigrants he knew.
"I'm a person of color and the people I grew up with in London are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants," Weekes told The Times. "Being in such a Western country, such a white country, a lot of the conversations we have are about assimilation. It's always a question of how far you're willing to give up or surrender to the culture to fit in, how much you're willing to let go of your past and your history for security."
Adding a supernatural twist inspired by Sudanese folklore, Weekes brought the spirits haunting his characters to life using practical effects and in-camera tricks and textured lighting design. He worked with cinematographer Jo Willems to create viscerally dread-inducing chambers within the peeling walls of the home, shot both on location on an actual housing estate and on a soundstage.
In his writing process, Weekes looked to the experiences of real asylum-seekers to fold realistic details into the home life of Bol and Rial and anchor their journeys in emotional authenticity.
"One thing that resonated was that when you get given a house in the U.K., you have to abide by really cruel and medieval rules," Weekes said. "You're not allowed to move. You have to stay in this house. You're not allowed to work. You're given a weekly allowance, but it's very small."
"When I read firsthand accounts of what it was like for asylum seekers to be in this space, it was very retraumatizing for them. It's like this cruel waiting space. You're left almost reliving the experience it took to get here," he added. "I found it a really interesting place to start the story."