Remi Weekes on Why 'His House' Is a Very British Horror Movie

Tom Nicholson
·8-min read
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

From Esquire

It's not every Halloween that there are two thoughtful, original and genuinely frightening British indie horrors in cinemas.

After Rose Glass's Saint Maud comes Remi Weekes' debut feature His House, which at its heart, Weekes tells us over the phone, is a twisted haunted house story about how "the suppression of our traumas and our past can only make the pain more powerful".

His House follows Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu), a couple who escape violence in South Sudan via a treacherous and traumatic boat crossing to the UK. Not all of their party make it, but when those who do get to a detention centre, they're assigned a house that they can't leave on pain of deportation.

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

"We are good people," Bol insists to a panel of caseworkers. The state isn't interested in whether you're good people or not, he's told. Just fit in, get on, don't make a scene. They're taken to a house in an eerie no-place of an estate somewhere in a post-austerity English town, which doesn't seem to want them there. They've got it good, though, their caseworker Mark (Matt Smith) tells them.

Bol wants to do exactly what he was told, to fit in and move on, putting their trauma behind them; Rial, though, is convinced that the house is haunted and wants to return to Sudan. Soon they're terrorised by sounds in the walls and visions in their heads, all of which point to an even darker secret they're trying to bury.

It's a smart and deeply empathetic spin on the haunted house genre (of which Weekes is clearly a fan – his deeply creepy 2016 short Tickle Monster touched on it too) which hints that it's not just the house which seems to have been taken over by a force that wants Rial and Bol to leave; it's the whole country.

"I didn’t want to be specific in, I guess, outlining where this haunting comes from, or go too deep into the history; I wanted to keep it tight and psychological," Weekes says. "I’m happy that you could take different things from it."

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

Why tell this story through horror?

I like quite psychological cinema, and I think cinema as a medium can often be quite superficial. What I like about horror, especially [when I was] growing up, is it allows you to go into the mind of someone and to show things from a very, I guess, emotional perspective. A horror film I really like is Rosemary’s Baby – I think it’s really exciting when cinema has the ability to empathise with someone and go into someone’s mind-space and tell things from their perspective.

Was there a particular sequence or vision which came to you first for His House? What was the starting point in your head?

I think the first visual that came to me was the ocean. When I was writing this I was doing a lot of research, I was reading a lot about the journey and whatnot. The film itself is fictionalised, but what’s in the film was taken from bits and pieces I’d read. It was really trying to use real life accounts as a base for the story and to try and make the moments in the film have a truthful beginning.

Why focus on refugees from South Sudan?

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.

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

Which specific conversations are at the core of His House?

I feel like in many places in the West you’re pulled in two very different directions: there’s part of you that really wants to assimilate and fit in, and to not draw attention to yourself, but there’s another part of you that feels very suspicious that the place doesn’t particularly feel welcoming to you, so you find yourself pulling away again, wanting to rebel from that and to stick to your roots and stick out proudly. You’re often torn in these two directions and battle within yourself, especially when you’re trying to find your place in a new country. You find yourself always struggling to find a balance.

Has making the film changed where you’re at on that one?

Interesting. I think for many people finding your place is a thing that’s always changing and growing and it’s a work in progress, I’d say.

The film's UK is a very grey, concrete place, one with no shared spaces and alleyways that go nowhere.

This came out of the research as well – for many people who are moving or thinking of migrating to the UK, they’re sold on the image that the UK sells to the rest of the world is a fairytale idea of England: it’s the Queen and Charles Dickens and beautiful and London-centric. And so for many people who arrive in the UK it can be very disorientating because what they see isn’t what they were sold. For example, a lot of people would be ferried to a detention centre and then ferried to their new accommodation, and when they reach their new accommodation they have no idea where they are. They have no sense of orientation. It adds to many people’s sense of confusion and exacerbates the trauma they already have. I find it’s very interesting when you come to the UK, it’s not what maybe you’d see on a postcard, so it was very important for us to shoot a location that wasn’t necessarily what you pictured the UK being. We filmed in Tilbury in Essex, and it’s very similar estate [to ones] that many people would be taken to.

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

What was filming around Tilbury like?

Our head of location was amazing, she really spent time with the community telling them what we were doing and doing events in the lead up and after the shoot as well. So when we were shooting there for a few weeks it was really easy and really fun. They were really cool, especially when it was definitely a place where the community had really been through some hard times economically. It was just lovely that they were all so welcoming.

The look of the house itself is very particular. Did you have a specific vision when you were writing it?

The look was based on one of the houses in Tilbury, so we shot some of the scenes in Tilbury and then recreated it on a set in West London. What we really wanted to do, because this is a film primarily set in one location, we really wanted to find ways to have the house develop and transform throughout the film and as the characters’ emotional states begin to shift. Jacqueline [Abrahams], the production designer, had some really exciting ideas in terms of using pieces of wallpaper and the under-wall to always be transforming to reflect the ongoing psychological state of the characters.

What details should we look out for?

I don’t know if I want to say! No, I don’t want to say. It was really fun using the house as a base but then finding ways to open it out and to turn something that feels very real into a more surreal space.

Were there any haunted houses in horror cinema that you used as touchstones?

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.

One of the main themes in His House is trauma, and particularly Bol not being able to process it and refusing to engage with it. What does it say about being a man?

Part of why it’s called His House is [there's] this feeling for men, [that] we have to be the ones to shoulder burdens but not admit to how much pain they can cause us. I guess his character reflected a need to suppress our emotions in the hope that by suppressing them they’ll just go away, when usually the opposite happens.

There's a couple of touches of warming humour in His House, especially when Bol watches Stoke City on TV with a group of fans in a working men's club and joins in their chants about Peter Crouch.

I guess what's important to me in the film is that things don't always feel so black and white, that how people respond to each other isn't always what you'd expect. It's not a world where asylum seekers come to the country and everyone treats them terribly; that's not the case at all. I just want to make sure we're reminded of that, that actually there's more layers to all these conversations than what you're led to believe.

His House is out now on Netflix

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