British director Remi Weekes’ 2016 short film Tickle Monster was the perfect calling card for an up-and-coming genre filmmaker: the story of an aspiring grime artist haunted by the titular handsy entity, it was a terrifying four-minutes of expertly crafted suspense and jump scares that somehow also managed to say something meaningful in its minuscule running time. Publications began spotlighting Weekes as a “star of tomorrow,” the short got a premiere slot at South By Southwest, and eventually he was tapped to write and direct his first feature, His House, a novel twist on the haunted house genre centered on two new-to-the-U.K. asylum seekers.
In His House, which arrives on Netflix this week, South Sudanese refugees Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu) are released from a government facility and assigned a rundown house in a rundown estate in greater London where they must serve a kind of probation period: they can’t work, can’t move, and can’t rock the boat. Slowly, the couple realizes all is not as it appears in their new home, but with the state’s eye fixed firmly on them, and the pressure to be “good immigrants” pressing down, they can’t simply flee the terror – and so they must face it.
With His House, Weekes shows his successful short was no fluke: Critics at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered and Netflix scooped it up, heralded the arrival of a new horror force in the young writer-director, one who could blend scares that out-Conjuring-ed anything that universe was serving with trenchant and fresh-feeling social commentary. Ahead of the movie’s streaming release, we spoke with Weekes about crafting some of the year’s best scares and telling ghost stories focused on people and spirits we rarely see walking the corridors of haunted movie homes.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: One of the really compelling things about this movie is that, unlike a lot of haunted house movies, the characters can’t really leave their situation – there are so many different non-supernatural forces keeping them stuck. Why did you decide to focus on this aspect of the immigrant experience?
Remi Weekes: During the development of the story, we did a lot of research and I was reading about the asylum-seeking process in this country, and not just that, but also the experiences of asylum seekers. One thing that I really latched onto was this thing we have in the U.K., where we give an asylum seeker a house, but then we also try and enforce these very draconian rules that they have to abide by. They can’t just leave the house, and then they can’t get a job, and they get a very small allowance. But mostly they have to stay put. When you hear asylum seekers’ experiences of this, it can be quite a re-traumatizing moment for them. They are in a new and confusing world and they’re almost forced to park any kind of sense of progress or moving on; I guess they are unable to take the next step forwards in their new life. They’re forced to park everything and be re-traumatized all over again. It seemed, as a storyteller, a really perfect way to tell the story was around that.
The house itself is also interesting, because it’s not the kind of house we’re used to seeing in a traditional haunted home movie – there’s no gothic staircase or anything like that. You really emphasize how rundown and shabby this house is. It’s scarier, in a sense, but I’m wondering why you decided to go for that look and for this particular house?
Weekes: This is definitely a fictional story, but we tried to base everything within the film on some kind of truth and some kind of real experience. So the house in the film is based on the kinds of suburban places that asylum seekers would be taken to. We filmed in Tilbury, which is in Essex. It’s by the coast, and so it’s one of the places that many immigrants go through, so it had a particular resonance to the story. And so that’s why [we shot there].
Another reason why we picked that house was that, I guess, historically England or the U.K. has used its soft power to export a certain image of itself to the rest of the world, and it’s usually a very boastful image. I guess it’s part of the reason many people migrate here – this image that we project out to the world. So for a lot of people who come here, especially asylum seekers, it can be such a disorientating experience: everything they see and where they end up is not at all the image that they thought they were going to get. A lot of people, when they are given accommodation, they’re not really told where they’re going and where they’re being placed, and so it can really feel incredibly isolating and confusing. That was another reason why we picked that location, because it doesn’t scream “British” in all the classical ways you expect “British” to be.
Right. You seem to use that idea to explore different reactions asylum seekers have to confronting that reality. Bol, the husband, is determined to dig his heels in and stay and integrate – go to the pub, and follow football, and all this kind of stuff. Rial sees the house and you can kind of see the reaction instantly: She wants out. You’re giving us two distinct perspectives there and characterizations, and often times, migrants in films, particularly those told by Westerners, are kind of flattened and perceived as a monolith. Was that something you were really wanting to do in this film – show the richness and diversity of opinion and thoughts about those who come to the country?
Weekes: Yeah, totally. I think another thing that was incredibly important to me when I pitched the story was that I really wanted it to be about these two people and for them to be the story, and no one else, and it be told be through their eyes and their perspective. Mostly because this whole conversation about immigration usually takes place between politicians and activists and whatnot, and it’s rarely from the perspectives of the asylum seekers themselves. I really wanted to make sure to keep the focus on them and only them. With that, hopefully we create really distinct and really complicated characters who won’t behave in a cartoony way, as often they can be portrayed.
The movie is taking on a lot of issues, but it’s also just a very terrifying film. It’s really scary. You’ve said that you wanted to sort of “remix” some of the traditional horror fare that you’d grown up with. What was the horror you grew up loving, and what classics did you bring to bear on this particular film?
Weekes: I guess the biggest influences on this film were definitely the ghost stories – haunted house stories. The Innocents, for example, and The Others. The Shining was a big influence. There’s a Thai filmmaker called Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and he does ghost stories as well, in a way, but set in Thailand. What I love about his stuff is that it’s all very banal and set in very normal spaces, but then ghosts come and stuff. I really liked that juxtaposition, and so I felt it influenced me a lot.
There are a lot of in-camera practical effects sequences that are very effective and chilling, and also beautiful at times. What was the most challenging of those sequences to shoot for this film?
Weekes: I think all the kind of spooky sequences were challenging in a way. I came up as a director doing quite visual pieces. So what’s important to me about filmmaking is the craft of it and the building of it. It was really important to me that the sequences were scary and interesting, but – and this was really the difficult thing – not only do they have to work as scare sequences, but they all had to be in service of the character, and conceptually they all have to fit in with the story and what I was trying to say and what the character learns in that moment.
It was really challenging to me as a filmmaker, because on one level your job is to scare an audience, and when you’re using your imagination, you can think of all sorts of fun and crazy ways you can scare someone. But then you always have to think, “Well, am I just scaring them? Am I really serving the character? Am I moving the story forward? What am I saying? Is this enlightening of the character in any way?” Putting those two things together, that was challenging. I mean, sometimes it just was like, “Can we just have a ghost? Or a spider – could they get a spider?” You have to have the why, what does that mean? It was hard.
This is a bit of a broad question. We were interviewing Rapman, who made Blue Story, earlier this year, and discussing the need for new voices and different kinds of stories to get funding in the U.K. There seems to be some positive change with his film, yours, and others. Are you sensing that as well? Is there any shift in who is getting to tell stories in the U.K. or does more work need to be done?
Weekes: For me personally, it’s too early to say. I think I would be cautious of optimism, because culturally there’s always been peaks and troughs. There’s always been moments where there seems to be real energy in terms of changing of the guard, but there’s also been times where it’s fizzled out. I think the history of cinema has proven that there’s moments when Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society or Do the Right Thing become huge films and people think, “Oh, is this new wave sustainable?” and then you wait another 10 or 15 years before something else comes. Idealistically, I’d hope that the film industry puts in the time and effort to make a real diverse film culture. However, I would wait to see the data to see if there’s any real evidence of this.
What do you want people to take away from seeing His House this weekend?
Weekes: I guess empathy. I hope that our job as filmmakers and storytellers is to help audiences empathize with people that they might not normally empathize with. And so I hope that this brings some more empathy into the world.
Weekes: And terror. That too. Empathy and terror – that’s me.
His House is available on Netflix from Friday, October 30, 2020.