(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: His House uses misdirection and unpredictability to create the year’s biggest scare.)
Remi Weekes’s feature debut uses horror to explore the anxieties, indignities, and trauma of the immigrant experience through a Sudanese couple’s lens. Weekes doesn’t hold back on the scares in this Netflix release. His House offers up one of the year’s most terrifying films, with the scares given just as much attention as the story. Rendering an already vulnerable couple even more so at the hands of a nightmarish figure that arrives each night to torment them, His House offers a unique, often heart wrenching twist on the haunted house format.
The filmmaker’s ability to elicit tears and send shivers down your spine is remarkable, and never is the latter as evident as it is in the film’s most unnerving moment. Through atmosphere and misdirection, one night of emotional intensity crescendos into a waking nightmare with the ghastly arrival of an unwelcome specter.
For Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial’s (Wunmi Mosaku), their harrowing escape from war-torn South Sudan to the UK for asylum is only the beginning of a bone-chilling journey. Assigned a dilapidated yet spacious apartment in an unforgiving neighborhood via a curt social worker (Matt Smith), the couple doesn’t bat an eye in their attempts to assimilate. But each night brings unspeakable terror. Unable to leave and forced to remain in good standing with the government to prove that they’re worthy of staying, Bol and Rial must confront the demons of their past and present for the sake of a better future.
The Story So Far
After escaping death at the hands of militia in their home country of South Sudan, suffering the loss of a daughter, and crossing an unforgiving sea to seek asylum in the UK, the harsh mandates given to Bol and Rial upon leaving the detention center for private housing is but a minor blip. Even the grimy apartment they’re given seems like heaven compared to the hell from which they’d just fled. Unable to work to pass their days, Bol and Rial try to adapt to their surroundings. The neighbors are frequently hostile, and the cultural shifts seem cold and jarring. At least Bol and Rial have each other. Once Rial goes to bed each night. However, Bol is left alone with his thoughts in the darkness.
In dim lighting, Bol notices pitch-black holes in the walls beneath the peeling wallpaper. Eerie sounds emanate from within. Without hesitation, Bol reaches in the inky depths of the holes. Doors creak open behind him on their own, a sign of a supernatural presence. The more he notices the holes, the more it marks a growing rift between him and his wife. Rial believes that a witch has followed them over, and her grief over their daughter is still yet to be fully processed. Over dinner, their diverging paths to assimilation prompts a heated exchange that ends with Rial calling Bol a liar.
After Rial heads to bed, Bol peels wallpaper alone downstairs by candlelight. In the room behind him, the candle goes out. Bol calls out to his wife, with no answer. He resumes his work but feels a hot breath on his neck. Still, there’s no one. He stares through the doorway, into the hallway beyond. Slowly, a figure appears. The hunched and emaciated woman pauses in the middle of the entrance and cranes her head to stare at Bol. A noise in the sink distracts Bol, and the woman is gone when he peers back. Quick, heavy footsteps precede her sudden reappearance, much closer this time. All candles blow out. When he reaches for a flashlight, the ghost of his daughter sits in the corner, waiting to unleash her anger.
There are three main characters in His House; Bol, Rial, and the house itself. Giving a haunted house personality is an integral step for any horror movie in this subgenre, and production designer Jacqueline Abrahams (Lady Macbeth, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) knows how to build atmosphere through production design. She transforms a standard flat in a nondescript neighborhood into something far more sinister through mold, grimy walls, and a layout that perfectly sets up this heart-pounding scare. That the night scenes are lit with the warm, flickering glow of candles only enhances the creepy ambiance.
Sound plays a vital role, as well. The music stings cue the jump scares, of course. But the viewer is unsettled long before by the unnatural scratches from within the walls, the whoosh of breath on Bol’s neck, and the jarring footsteps that herald in the frightening figure appearing just outside the room.
This scary scene’s lynchpin is the misdirection and the tactics Weekes employs to keep the viewer on edge through unpredictability. The moment the back-room candle blows out, it’s clear a scare is coming—from where is far harder to place. A hot breath on the back of Bol’s neck teases the ghost is within inches, but then the emaciated figure creeps into view at the far opposite end of the house. Then a sound from Bol’s far-left distracts him just enough for the specter to reappear much closer, the volume and speed of her footsteps matching accordingly. The constant shifts in direction, sound, and use of space keep you off-kilter, allowing for the scare to achieve maximum effect.
It’s a potent moment that prompts a visceral reaction in the viewer, and yet the scare itself is misdirection for the reveal of Bol’s daughter lying in wait when he finds his flashlight. Faced away from him, she’s rocking herself back and forth while rhythmically plunging a dagger into the floor. The music quiets to a background siren as he edges toward her, unsure of whether to trust his sight. Bol moves around to see her face, and she attacks.
This frightening double scare sets up the overarching mystery that drives the plot forward; is there a nefarious force preying on Bol’s past, or is the ghosts of his past bearing a major grudge that means him harm? With this frightening scene, Weekes didn’t just deliver one of the year’s biggest scares; he proved that the best scares can service the narrative in surprising and complex ways.
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