By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Having premiered on Netflix the day before Halloween to universal and deserving critical raves, HIS HOUSE is a standout horror drama that derives a good deal of its power from its lead performances. Sopé Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku grab hold of our sympathies from the beginning and never let go as Bol and Rial Majur, who have fled the wartorn South Sudan to seek a new life in London. What they find is a government with little sympathy for their plight, a rundown new home in an unfriendly neighborhood–and terrorization by literal demons from their past.
Written and directed by Remi Weekes (who discusses the movie here) in his feature debut, HIS HOUSE engages with affecting sociopolitical themes while fully delivering the scares. Through it all, Dìrísù (a familiar face on British TV and the stage throughout the 2010s) and Mosaku (whose many credits include the regular role of Ruby Baptiste on LOVECRAFT COUNTRY) create complex and authentic characters, responding to their situation in very different ways while they struggle to stay together. As the actors tell RUE MORGUE, they responded immediately to Weekes’ screenplay, its themes and a final-act revelation that we won’t reveal here.
What were your first impressions of the story and your characters when you first read HIS HOUSE?
WUNMI MOSAKU: I just loved the script. I fell in love with its nuance, and when I read the twist, I was so blown away by it that I had to go straight back to the beginning without even finishing the script, and reread it with that new information. And I still loved them, I still empathized with them, I understood them. It made me question what right and wrong is when you’re faced with survival, with life and death. I also loved the differences in how Rial and Bol react to what’s going on, not just the horror but in regards to assimilation and remembering where you’re from, and trying to keep ahold of your culture. That juxtaposition was so real and honest.
SOPÉ DÌRÍSÙ: I was excited in the first instance to tell another version of the black experience, because the black experience is so massive and varied and disparate and diverse, to call it the black experience is pretty much reductive, because no two experiences are the same. So to have a film following an African couple from South Sudan, depicting the horrors of their journey and then what it’s like to be an immigrant asylum seeker in the UK, just being able to put that story on the screen and share it with a global audience was extremely exciting for me. And that was before we even get into the horrors and the thrills and the scares. The film is very rich, and I could tell that from the first reading, which was why I had to be a part of it.
Had either of you done horror films before?
WM: I had done CITADEL, and also BLACK MIRROR, which had a haunted-house kind of thing to it, my episode.
SD: I don’t know how many people would qualify BLACK MIRROR as horror, but I suppose it is a sort of dystopian-future horror series, and I was in it also, in the same season.
You have a very familiar, lived-in chemistry in HIS HOUSE; had you actually worked together on any previous projects, or known each other before?
WM: No. We knew of each other, and I had seen a lot of Sopé’s work and really loved it. I knew we were going to be friends, because we have so many mutual friends, and we developed a quick kinship. It was really easy, and we were so lucky, because that’s not always the case, especially when it’s almost a two-hander. Gosh, imagine if that wasn’t the case… [Laughs]
As you mentioned, Bol and Rial each react to their situation in very different ways. Can you talk about those sides of your roles?
SD: What is interesting about Bol is that he has done a lot to try and survive, and he’s not necessarily proud of all those things. So in order to live his life again now, he tries to reject and forget and leave behind his issues of the past, who he was and the man who did these things, and the trauma that comes with all those situations. In order to put all that behind him, and live and thrive in this new environment, he wants to become a part of it as much as possible. He wants to speak the language, he wants to engage with society in terms of pub culture or sports culture; he wants to be as English as possible in order to leave behind the traumas that are haunting him. But that’s not possible, no matter how much he tries.
WM: And Rial is the opposite, in a way; she wants to keep talking about the past and where they’re from, who they were, their daughter. She just wants to go back, because in her mind, if she goes back, she can maybe rewind what’s happened. So they’re both a little bit delusional, because the reality is, they can never go back. And the reality is that you can never truly assimilate in a new country, especially when you aren’t really given a chance. I mean, Sopé and I have both experienced being told to go back home. No matter how British you sound or how much you live like a Brit, sometimes you’re not seen as a Brit regardless.
SD: Talking about what Wunmi said about how you can’t go back, the flip side of that is, you can’t go forward until you appreciate where you’ve come from. You can think you’re moving forward, having cut off the past, but really, you’re just worldless and anchorless, floating around. Unless you have that foundation of who you are, and who you know yourself to be and who your people know you as, it’s very difficult to pioneer and chart a course.
You each feature in one of my favorite scenes in HIS HOUSE. Wunmi, yours is the sequence in which Rial tries to find the doctor’s office, and what should be a simple walk becomes something of a nightmare.
WM: There’s something about the Tilbury Estate [where HIS HOUSE was filmed] that is so repetitive, it is very easy to get lost. But I also feel like it’s kind of a metaphor for how you can think you know what Britain’s like; you just have to work hard, do this, do that, and you will succeed and achieve your goal. But it doesn’t matter how hard you try; sometimes it feels like a maze, and like the longest journey, neverending and impossible.
And Sopé, your actual nightmare sequence that begins in the kitchen really ties the movie’s themes together in a striking way.
SD: Yeah, it was interesting shooting that, because a lot of it was done on a greenscreen soundstage, so I had no idea how it was going to look. A lot of the specters that visit him in that nightmare weren’t there when we were shooting it, so I was relying on Remi’s vision, and him knowing exactly what he wanted to achieve. I had to trust him and do everything he told me to do, and we’d see how it looked in the end. I’m really glad it turned out the way it did.
You have a number of scenes where Bol is alone in the house and visited by the specters. How much of all that did you actually see during filming?
SD: Actually, I’m grateful that a lot of those things were there for me, especially working with Javier [Botet, creature performer], for example, where I wasn’t just following a tennis ball and pretending he was there. So quite a number of the specters were there, and the makeup department did such an excellent job making them as terrifying in person as they look on screen. I was grateful to have all these stimuli to respond to without having to create them in my head.
What would you each say was the most challenging part of the production?
SD: I would say that it was one of the first times in my career that the cast was so small, a lot of the weight and responsibility of telling the story fell to myself and Wunmi. That was quite intense for me; it was a steep learning curve, but I’ve learned it now, so I won’t be as surprised if I find myself in that situation again.
WM: Yeah, I believe I had three days off on the whole shoot and Sopé had one, so that was exhausting. It was long days where we were needed for every single scene and every single moment, and there wasn’t a lot of down time. We were just shouldering it between the two of us, especially Sopé.
In general, do you believe the horror genre is capable of addressing sociopolitical concerns in ways that a straight drama might not?
SD: I think that horror as a genre is similar to fantasy, in that it creates a slight filter through which we can see things that are happening in the world, but not see them as the things that are happening in the world, if you know what I mean. You can say, like, the elves are being expelled from their forest, and you can feel empathy for them in a way where you don’t feel preached at, as you would if you saw human beings forced out of their homes because of a war. Sometimes when there is a monster, it’s very easy to pin the blame on that monster, rather than seeing that the monster lives inside every single person who doesn’t have empathy for our protagonists. We can set that bit of ourselves that we don’t like outside, onto this mystical figure, or demon or something, rather than appreciating that actually, it dwells within a lot of us.
And then also, you can say, “Oh, that was really scary,” and pack that away as a film or a piece of entertainment, rather than the feeling you’d have with a documentary about people making the crossing, and the trauma they lived through. Then I think a lot of people would choose to disengage, because they’re not ready to process that within themselves. So you combine that with the fact that unfortunately, the black experience in many different territories is a living horror story–we’ve seen that a lot in 2020–telling it through genre is a more palatable way to digest things that we should probably face up to a bit more.