His House and the rise of “Woke Horror”
By Kor O’Connell – Modern Languages student at the University of Tuscia
JANUARY 23, 2021
Horror films are trashy by design. Shock, titillation, evil. All part and parcel of the genre. People long for the cathartic thrill of being horrified, whether they like to admit it or not. What remains unclear is whether the general public enjoys being challenged by such silly monster movies.
When Tod Browning brought Dracula to the big screen in 1931, he presented the title character as unambiguously villainous: magnetic, sexual, foreign, a corruptor of good and normal people. The framework was classic Victorian gothic. The audience, in their terror, could be at peace knowing exactly where the danger lay.
Only a year later, however, Browning’s career would be all but destroyed by the release of “Freaks”, a movie which featured disabled actors, social outcasts and circus performers as anti-heroes. The true monsters turned out to be the attractive, heteronormative couple exploiting the so-called “freaks” for money. Audiences and critics were outraged: gone was the comfort in the discomfort. We came here for a good time, why are we being confronted with heady moral quandaries? Why are our values being called into question?
Things have changed, clearly. As cinema itself has progressed, viewers have become more willing to accept the presence of socially relevant themes in their genre fair. Escapism makes any real life trauma easier to stomach, and, in a world saturated with bad news, it was only a matter of time before society’s actual demons crept their way into our horror movies as well.
Thus, we have “His House”. A 2020 Netflix release which represents the culmination of a phenomenon I’d define as “woke horror”. That is to say, mass audience horror movies that hinge on a particular high concept premise, one that centres around a hot button political issue like mental health, racism, homophobia, etc. The controversial topic of the film creates hype online, think-pieces abound from leftist and conservative pundits, the trailer goes viral. Hey presto! Money! A marvel of digital marketing, if nothing else.
Some context: “His House” is the first feature film of British director Remi Weekes, at this point in time virtually unknown in the world of cinema, but undoubtedly a talent to watch. His film deals with the plight of Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), a Sudanese couple who immigrate to the UK to flee an escalation of violence in their home region.
Through flashbacks and conversations, we gather that they lost their child, Nyagak, during a dramatic rescue in the Mediterranean. They are assigned a squalid piece of government housing and are determined to make it work. The demons of their past, however, seem to have other plans.
What we have here is essentially a classic piece of gothic storytelling. A haunted house, a tormented couple, degrading mental and physical states, ghosts returning to invoque their revenge, cyphers of personal wrongdoings. We are also treated to some dizzying phantasmagoria throughout the film, from a tattered wall filled with hundreds of eyes to a pale demon literally sliding itself under a black man’s skin.
Despite the excesses of its imagery, the film remains more of a sobering drama about immigration than anything else. Bol and Rial’s relationship with the government is dealt with seriously and clearly, and we feel their struggles.
We witness Rial’s alienation as she senses her identity being stripped away, and her pain and confusion when she is mocked by local school boys. We sense Bol’s optimism being whittled down as he buckles under the pressure of being a model immigrant, in spite of his neighbours’ bigotry. “Be one of the good ones” a social worker warns him. Ultimately, the impression is that they have been set up to fail. And if they do, they will be sent back to a home that is no longer theirs.
All this being said, Netflix wouldn’t have taken a gamble on the bold, politically charged film of some nobody, first-time director if there weren’t precedents for the film to succeed. A corporation like Netflix knows that there is an audience for this kind of stuff. “Woke Horror”, as it turns out, has been gaining in attraction for years.
It’s been helped by an ever more politicised social media landscape, dominated by endless discourse and terms like “social justice”, “virtue signalling” and, indeed, “woke”. “Woke” indicating those who are particularly hip to any kind of social issue, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on what faction of the internet is asked.
In this context, a brilliant success story would be Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2018), which helped the sub-genre break into the mainstream, with its Bunuel-esque view of thorny racial dynamics. Further back we have the film which I would assert started it all: Jennifer Kent’s unsettling “The Babadook” (2014), a grim drama about depression and grief disguised as a monster movie.
Around the same time came “It follows” (2014), replete with allegorical references to sexually transmitted diseases and sex-negativity. Ari Aster’s unhinged examination of death and mental illness in “Hereditary” (2018) made waves with audiences and critics. One could go on quoting “The Witch” (2015), with its somber deconstruction of religion, or the recent “Bulbbul” (2020), a deeply feminist horror tale from India in the vein of Guillermo Del Toro.
That’s not to say the trend has brought us only quality pictures. M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” (2015) and “Split” (2016), while entertainingly schlocky in their own right, both deal with mental illness in simplistic and borderline offensive ways, demonising those affected with mental health disorders. Shudder’s recent release “Spiral” (2019) is a queer-centric horror film that felt slap-dash and incoherent at best. The clumsy, derivative “Antebellum” (2020) also comes to mind.
This does bring into question, for both the positive and negative examples mentioned above, the legitimacy of including such topics in what is considered trash entertainment for the masses. Could it not be that Hollywood is merely exploiting the social justice mindset, using it to turn a profit? Suck in the well-intentioned? Many have mentioned the risk of trivialising heavy issues by using them as a mere backdrop for commercial horror stories.
And yet, regardless of the creators’ intentions, these films call one’s attention to the problems at hand. “His House” certainly does. It is a film that merits being viewed even beyond its political subtext, since it is a remarkably well-balanced piece of filmmaking. The frenetic power of its imagery, the layers of cinematic references, the sure-handed direction, not to mention the utter electricity between its lead characters. Sope Dirisu strikes a chord as a man on the brink of complete self-destruction, and Wunmi Mosaku pierces through the screen, shifting from shell-shocked to fearless on a whim.
Be warned: “His House” is a gothic tale, which means there are no heroes. Nobody is innocent. There are merely flawed individuals, struggling to survive their regrets, drowning in their day-to-day madness. It’s a more honest reflection of today’s uncertainties than any cloying Oscar-bait drama has offered us in years.
As the movie draws to a close, we see Rial and Bol standing in silence, staring at the camera. Every room of their house is filled to the brim with those they lost to the war and to the sea. One simply can’t shake off the past, it seems. It isn’t a ghost or a demon that can be exorcised. It is a presence that fills the room, and the sooner you learn to live with it, the better.
A nightmare with a silver lining. Much like 2020.