The haunted house. A familiar horror setting but, for his feature debut writer/director Remi Weekes has taken this most traditional of tropes and given it a powerfully topical angle, one that’s in the headlines as this review is being written.
Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) have escaped war-torn Sudan, enduring the hardships and fear of a lengthy truck journey and a small boat crowded with refugees. Many of them, including their daughter, don’t make it but the couple are granted asylum seeker status in England and given a house. One of many faceless homes on a drab housing estate, from the outside it’s scruffy and neglected. But inside the house, the grieving couple face bigger terrors, seemingly built into its very walls.
It’s not the just the house that’s unwelcoming. The immigration officials who warn them sternly that they’re not yet citizens, the local boys who shout at Rial to go back to Africa, the maze-like housing estate that calls Vivarium to mind, the anonymous town …. it all reinforces that they’re thousands of miles from home and very much on their own. The only near-friendly face belongs to their case worker Mark (Matt Smith), and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place – doing a job he clearly doesn’t like but feeling a certain sympathy for the displaced couple. Overshadowing everything is that traumatic journey and their grief at the loss of their daughter: the memories never go away and as gaps appear in the walls and the wallpaper starts to peel at will, those horrific memories start to become increasingly real.
Is what they’re seeing the result of their trauma? Is the house genuinely haunted by a malevolent force? Or is it the influence of their culture, the stories they grew up with as children and that painful feeling of alienation and isolation? The decision is yours, but what’s clear is that we’re taken into an emotional and personal space, rather than being given a social commentary or documentary on the subject of refugees, the extremes they go to in order to reach their destination – and, indeed, to survive in the first place – and the treatment they receive.
What’s also clear is that, thanks to some great sound design and superbly terrified performances from Dirisu and Mosaku, especially when their grief, guilt, shame and trauma come to life in physical form, your knuckles will be turning white as you jump in your seat. Merging the contemporary with the traditional, Weekes’ debut isn’t just impressive, it provides some of the best scares going this spooky season. And that, in itself, is something of an achievement.
Horror | Cert: 15 | Netflix | 30 October 2020 | Dir. Remi Weekes| Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith.