Horror movies rarely reach the level of artistry as seen in His House (2020). Here we analyze Remi Weekes’ movie – its important message about migration, the meaning of apeth and witchcraft, and why drama and horror go hand in hand so confidently.
Fall usually blossoms in the area of horror movies, and we do need an injection of positivity in 2020. The debuting director Remi Weekes comes to aid though.
His House (2020) poetically navigates two refugees through hell and back, and the dreadful character of their struggle stems from very real fears and dangers – despite a malefic witch they bring to their asylum in England. Honestly it’s one of the most memorable films of 2020, and due to its complexity, it calls for discussion.
Below is the analysis of His House (2020), in particular:
- How Remi Weekes uses refugee trauma to evoke dread
- Why tradition becomes the bone of contention between Rial and Bol
- Foreshadowing in His House (2020)
- The dreadful apeth and Sudanese witchcraft that fuels His House (2020)
As usual, let’s first recap the film’s plot.
The plot of His House (2020)
Based on a story co-created by Felicity Evans, Toby Venables and director Remi Weekes, the story of His House (2020) finds a couple of refugees – Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) – who luckily manage to land in England after their illegal carrier boat shatters in the middle of the sea. A shot at new life in Europe didn’t come without sacrifice though. Nyagak, their young daughter, had drowned on the stormy night before having the same second chance. Following a year spent in political limbo, Bol and Rial Majur finally receive a place of their own in the subsidized housing.
Assimilation becomes the top priority, however the couple soon learns that their happy ending might not be there yet. Strange noises in the house reveal an evil entity that has no plan of vacating the premises – unless another sacrifice is made.
The binding power of tradition
A curious angle to look at His House (2020) is to see how the two main characters reflect on their roots.
The determination of Bol to escape the traumatizing memories reforges itself into denial. The story hints at that on a few occasions – in a patronizing gesture when Bol brings cutlery to eat his dinner, or in the desperate attempts to cover the witch’s wrongdoings. Such behavior showcased by Bol is the result of the trauma he experienced, which is exhibited throughout the flashbacks.
Dinka massacres & South Sudan civil war
Image above: Dinka tribe woman, picture from The Guardian.
Understanding the great lengths which Bol and Rial had to go to land in England requires deeper insight into the Dinka people.
Dinka is a term that refers to tribes living in modern Sudan and Congo. A vast majority of Dinka people converted to Christianity, therefore giving grounds to persecutions on the side of the Arab Muslim government of Sudan – a conflict that escalated in 1983 when many Dinka men had to flee to rural areas from cities.
That historical background provides necessary context for the characters of Bol and Rial. As part of the Dinka tribes, Rial and Bol weren’t safe in war-torn South Sudan, a fact painted with blood and dramatic exposition in the couple’s memories in His House (2020). South Sudan’s civil war has ended only in 2020, and its sad aftermath is staggering – more than 2.5 million people were relocated and fled elsewhere, while estimations indicate around half a million victims of the war. The tragic situation in the country paints the picture of just how urgent and heart-wrecking the escape from South Sudan was for the couple.
There’s another layer to Rial and Bol’s Dinka heritage though. By converting to Christianity, and gaining education (Bol says he worked in a bank), both characters had established some kind of closeness to the European culture.
The new home vs. the old tradition dilemma
Remi Weekes uses the binding power of tradition as the bone of contention between the two. Bol believes in their second chance, meanwhile Rial delves into grief and dismal, but also acceptance of their fate dictated by the apeth. Having done wrong, and usurping foreign land as their own, the couple marked themselves.
Notice that Rial’s adherence to Dinka ways is not a sign of superstitiousness, but rather soul-searching – an act of acceptance of one’s own bane.
The transition of the characters comes off naturally precisely because of that landscape between the two. Rial realizes that acceptance of tradition cannot come at the cost of Bol’s life, meanwhile Bol embraces the dark sticky fingers of the wrath that comes to collect its debt. As Valeri Legasov’s thoughtful quote from Chernobyl (2019) indicated – “every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth”. Hence Bol’s desperate, cruel and heart-breaking act – undeniably the key to his freedom – carries the weight of that lie, and the arrival of the debt collector – the apeth – was due.
The apeth in His House (2020) and other horrors of the refugees
Remi Weekes’ mesmerizing horror keeps its wheels whirring because of the ever-growing tension. Forget jump scares though, because the dreadful moments in His House (2020) are constructs far more sinister and complex than your typical Blumhouse pulp (wink, I actually like those a lot). Much of the terrifying aura of His House (2020) settles on discombobulating the audience by messing with what’s real and what’s not. Dreamy sequences when the apeth reveals itself – or projects the traumas onto Bol or Rial – work because they blur the connection with reality. A clever way to evoke fear, and also one that’s not easy to stage.
In the centre of these harrowing parts of the story there’s a haunt called apeth. As explained by the anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt in ‘Some Notions of Witchcraft among the Dinka’, apeth constitutes one of the foundations of Dinka beliefs. Witchcraft as a form of torment occurs in Sudan, and the roles of oracles and witch doctors come at play when notions of possessions or evil entities appear.
The apeth appears to punish Bol for his atrocious theft. Although he cannot hurt Bol, through means of visual trickstery the monster aims at convincing Bol to hurt himself in order to repay his debt. When Bol – who as explained earlier strongly denies the cultural bonds – remains unbreakable, the apeth turns to Rial with its Faustian offering – kill Bol and bring back Nyagak. Weekes wanted to conjure a haunt different than killing machines from most horrors – instead, it mostly relies on what’s in the head of the characters we follow.
The meaning of Rial’s tale about the poor man and his house
The appearance of the witch is foreshadowed by Rial’s tale. This story is the key to a double-edged analysis of His House (2020) and the role of apeth. The woman explains that a poor man craved his own home – “he wanted it so badly, he began to steal from others”.
In the context of His House (2020), Bol’s crime presents a dichotomous dilemma. As we learn throughout the film, Bol “steals” Nyagak from her mother, and causes the child to drown (even if accidentally). In a sense, he therefore takes something to build the home of his own (the chance to flee South Sudan and settle in Europe). For that, the apeth pursues him and convinces to sacrifice in order to balance the debt of his sin.
What’s the second meaning?
Judging from the behavior of the care worker played by Matt Smith, the housing of Bol and Rial is spacious, even despite the utterly repulsive shape of it. His mean, allegedly innocent comments capture the second meaning of this tale. Bol and Rial “steal” from their new home too, taking a bigger place, or by planning to have a family.
The social commentary about migration
The above is crucial in the context of His House (2020) being a social commentary too. Over the last decade Europe has seen a surge in numbers of African immigrants, leading to many anti-migration movements and a heated debate all over the old continent.
Cinema has been invested in the dramatic aftermath of African colonialism for years too. Movies such as The Constant Gardener, Hotel Rwanda or Blood Diamond – but also indie ventures such as wildly underrated Mediterranea (2015) and Beast of No Nation (2015) – shed light on the terrible reality of African refugees, but none of them ventured into the horror genre.
Remi Weekes, British himself but of mixed descent, felt the urge to tell this story with strong focus on the current migration issues. As the director explained in an interview,
“I wanted to tell a contemporary story of people moving to the UK at this moment in time, and being from a mixed background myself I wanted to have some kind of mirroring of the kinds of conversations I’ve had growing up in the UK. South Sudan seemed like a really important thing that’s happening right now, and also something in terms of the conversations I heard from various African and Caribbean communities I’d grown up with, that I felt like I could connect with.”
Perspective and storytelling in His House (2020)
One of the incredible achievements of Remi Weekes in His House (2020) constitutes the way horror blends with drama. Nothing short of commendable is the way the two genres entwine in their devilish dance across two time dimensions and within the corridors of the communal house.
Such method works because Weekes understands the importance of perspective which determines how well we understand Rial and Bol’s situation. At first the plot design lets us sympathize with the two, and the setup seems to be in line with hordes of other haunted-house stories. Shaking things up comes with the well-timed reveal of the tragic events that led to Nyagak’s death.
Her passing – and the true reasons behind it – enriches this perspective instead of jeopardizing the warm feelings earned earlier by the couple. On the contrary, such dramatic exposure reverberates even more pointedly, thus creating the complexity of the refugee’s situation as seen in His House (2020). On the one hand, they’re guilty, but isn’t their deed at least understandable if it’s not justifiable?
One more thing’s worth mentioning, and it’s the method of combining the setting with the constant supervision from social services.
The Dinka couple is reminded of being outsiders on numerous occasions. In a scene when Rial loses her way among the labyrinthian streets of the city, or even in a heart-warming scene when Bol sings along with football fans. Spine-tingling or soul-stirring, Weekes usurps every chance he has to highlight their out-of-the-pattern situation.
On top of that comes the necessity to appear perfect in the eyes of the “hosts”. But how to remain an example of an assimilated foreigner when your own house creeps the hell out of you? Containing the story within the crude walls of the house elevates this dreadful experience. It’s not the witch on its own that torments Rial and Bol, but unfairness of their fate, as well as the trauma they have to cope with on their own.
Storytelling based on creating an emotional bond is ridiculously difficult though, especially for horror filmmakers. Easier than building credible characters is to throw them against harrowing and stressful events.
However, the latter concept rarely generates audience engagement. And only a few films managed to do so. In one of my favorite horrors of the last decade – The Ritual (2017) – director David Bruckner establishes a similar setup, where the protagonist carries the burden he desperately tries to fix. Same goes for Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) or Midsommar (2019) – both these movies are dramas which incorporate horror tricks to further deepen the effect of going insane and coping with grief respectively.
What is His House (2020) inspired by?
The director cited a few titles as key sources of inspiration, although he claims that “a good story is a good story”, and there wasn’t one particular genre he liked the most. As explained in a 40-minutes long chat (I post the link at the end of the article), his most memorable cinema experience was The Matrix (1999).
The intricate interior design of the atrocious housing we get to see in His House (2020) owes a lot to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
“I’ll always and forever be a fan of The Shining, and there’s at least one sequence in the film which is probably the only time I’ve put such a direct reference into my own stuff before. When Rial is walking through the neighbourhood, I was really inspired by the sequences in The Shining where he’s walking through the hallways and the hedge maze. I thought it’d be fun for it to be walking through the housing estate in Tilbury – it’s a strange contrast.”
A particular scene, in which the apeth tortures Bol to watch Nyagak rising from the water, has a strong vibe of The Lighthouse (2019) and its nautical creatures appearing in a few scenes.
Other than that, you can also see how Jordan Peele’s racism-focused Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) prompted some of the refugee horror of Rial and Bol. The feeling of being ill-fitted to the people around is very much carved in the design of Peele’s horrors, as well as Remi Weekes’ His House (2020).
Thanks for reading the analysis of His House (2020). I will be grateful for sharing this piece of work, and most importantly, for any comments and discussions below!
Check out other analyses of horror films!
- Read here the analysis of Midsommar (2019)
- Read here the analysis of The Lighthouse (2010)
- Read here the analysis of Parasite (2019)
- Read here the analysis of Luz (2018)
And here’s the interview I mentioned earlier.