“I’m not a huge horror fan. I don’t really like being scared just for the sake of it.”
Actor Wunmi Mosaku may speak for millions when she professes not to be a diehard horror fan. But, with starring roles in HBO global smash Lovecraft Country and in Netflix’s new psychological horror His House, the debut film from Remi Weekes, it’s safe to say that Mosaku is a convert.
And little wonder. His House tells the story of two asylum seekers battling post-traumatic stress disorder from a horrifying trip across the Channel, one that chimes all too closely with current events off the coast of the UK. And it arrives on Netflix this Halloween with the horror genre once again screaming for our attention.
Relic, the directorial debut from Natalie Erika James, lands in cinemas this week, with Emily Mortimer starring in a psychological horror that allows us to look at the slow, devastating creep of dementia through a new lens.
Meanwhile, Saint Maud has been heaven sent for our beleaguered cinemas. Another debut, this time from Rose Glass, it offers a terrifying take on the carer-patient relationship, exploring the horrors of loneliness and isolation, with a standout central performance by Morfydd Clark.
Horror is the perfect genre for telling these stories
On TV, Lovecraft Country (currently airing on Sky Atlantic) wraps up histories of racial violence in a stylishly delivered scary story, while The Haunting of Bly Manor (on Netflix) – a haunted house tale based on Henry James’s The Turn Of The Screw – continues the anthology that began with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, both with themes of loss and trauma at their heart.
For writer-director Weekes, who makes the transition from experimental art films to the movies with His House, horror is the perfect genre to explore our innermost anxieties and turmoil.
“Horror can be so effective as a psychological study of what is going on inside someone’s mind,” he says. “Cinema can find it difficult to do introspective stories, because it’s such a superficial medium. What you see is what you get. It’s not like books where you can peer into someone’s mind. But when you’re doing psychological horror, you can visualise it.”
His House begins with Bol (Ṣọpẹ ́Dìrísù) and Rial (Mosaku) fleeing war-torn Sudan – by truck then via a terrifying journey in a small, overcrowded boat – before eventually arriving in the UK to seek asylum.
As they await news of their claim, the couple are housed in a rundown home on a forgotten city estate, a million miles away from the gothic mansions typical of the genre but authentic and even scarier as a setting.
And it turns out to be haunted. Not by just any spectre though. The ghosts that haunt the couple are connected to the nightmarish journey they were forced to take, during which they lost a child at sea.
“The inner fears and the horrors of humanity are made material,” says Mosaku. “That is why horror is the perfect genre for telling these stories. My heart was pounding the whole way through reading the script and I couldn’t even see the monsters.
“Because the scariest thing is the reality of the story. The horror of what they’ve been through, that trauma, is scarred literally all over them, inside and out.”
If you remove the monster from this film it’s equally horrifying. The monster just adds a little bit of spice
Over the past decade, a new wave of horror hits have laced their scares with astute social commentary.
Whether that is Jennifer Kent’s examination of grief, made flesh in monstrous form in The Babadook (2014), Jordan Peele’s acclaimed Get Out (2017), widely seen as popularising the allegorical horror revival with its smart deconstruction of racism, or Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and its horrific exploration of familial scars, the genre has risen from the dead.
Whenever and wherever they are set, these films can offer insight into modern life, though this is nothing new for an underrated genre that Weekes traces back to the very first recorded moving images.
“Horror has come in and out of popularity since the very first horror movie, showing a train pulling into a station, which was also the very first film,” he says. “It’s been going through an exciting period of reinvention this past half decade.”
The genre has shown itself to be particularly adept at representing the psychological and physical violence of generations of racial hatred and oppression.
Rising star Ṣọpẹ ́Dìrísù [Gangs of London, Humans], who is now filming an adaptation of Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday with Colin Firth and Olivia Colman, agrees.
“Horror allows us some distance from the thing we’re discussing but the allegories are accessible,” he says. “We don’t feel like we’re being preached to, we don’t feel like we are watching the news – but it’s easy to see the parallels between horror and real life.
“When you boil down human experience it can be really horrifying. If you remove the monster from this film it’s equally horrifying. The monster just adds a little bit of spice.
“In horror, we bring out the things trapped inside our head and give them form and give them life, and whilst that is fantastical, it’s also very relatable.”
This digs into why His House is important. Come for the haunted house and hugely effective scares, jumps and twists, but stay for the timely examination of the way people seeking asylum are treated by this country.
“I really like it when art does not just reflect life but interrogates it,” Dìrísù adds. “His House shows a really harrowing experience. For me it was interesting to imagine there’s no monster. The story still holds up as an interesting exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Rather than make Bol and Rial’s case worker – played by ex-Doctor Who star Matt Smith – an easy target as the villain of the piece, Weekes instead makes him sympathetic, honest and three-dimensional. So, as Dìrísù puts it, “The system is the largest antagonist in this film.”
His House comes out as the conversation around the UK’s treatment of people seeking asylum is being heard above the constant roar and nightly horror show of Covid-19.
There were the boats packed with people fleeing their homelands being followed by GMB cameras as they entered UK waters. And recent reports revealed that Home Secretary Priti Patel had asked officials to look into the feasibility of “off-shoring” people seeking asylum in the UK on Ascension Island, a volcanic outcrop midway between Brazil and Angola.
“That is disgusting. And it’s going to get worse with climate change,” says Mosaku, who previously starred in Channel 4’s powerful drama I Am Slave and won a Bafta for her role as Damilola Taylor’s mother, Gloria, in Damilola: Our Loved Boy.
“We need to fix the problems rather than removing people from sight. It baffles me, the inhumane behaviours of humanity.”
Against his better judgement, Dìrísù has also read the latest stories.
“I did see that Priti Patel had more horrific plans for human beings,” he sighs. “You see a headline and almost don’t want to read. But it is important we engage with our politics because if we don’t know what’s going on in our name, we don’t know what we need to be active against.”
There’s a culture of gaslighting black and brown people, saying ‘racism doesn’t exist’ and ‘we’re an inclusive society’
Weekes spent time researching the experiences of people seeking asylum. We see the odds stacked against Bol and Rias, under draconian rules whereby they are forbidden to have friends in their home or seek work. He also delved into his own experience.
“When you’re an ethnic minority in this country, there has always been a sense of insecurity as to whether you belong,” he says.
“It’s important to our sense of identity to feel like we belong somewhere. And when we don’t, it’s easy for anxieties, fears and traumas to come out. That’s something we try to convey in the film. It’s very much a conversation of our time.”
A more complex dialogue around race and belonging would be welcomed by Mosaku. She talks with joy of her experience filming Lovecraft Country with a majority black cast in the US (no second season has been confirmed, but Mosaku calls us from Georgia, where it is filmed, and is working on a project she is unable to discuss, so we live in hope).
“Talking about race is something I never did in the UK. I feel like there’s a culture of gaslighting black and brown people, saying ‘racism doesn’t exist’ and ‘we’re an inclusive society’. You can’t talk about it easily without people being offended or feeling affronted, so we don’t talk,” she says.
“Exploring the themes of Lovecraft Country as a black woman feels therapeutic. I love that it shows such a range of blackness and celebrates us in our different shades and sizes and sexuality and joy and pain.
“Watching the episode I Am after the despicable news of the injustice Breonna Taylor’s family encountered offered a moment of hope. I am. We are. And we will not be broken.”
Similarly, His House, she hopes, offers an opportunity for us to change by highlighting the real-life horrors inflicted on people seeking refuge.
“I want to tell stories that matter and change people and change me. I have been changed by His House, by Lovecraft Country, by Damilola: Our Loved Boy,” she says.
“His House is so timely because of the way the UK media have been portraying refugees and asylum seekers,” she adds.
“These people are just trying to survive. It’s as simple as that. They want to live. People seek asylum because where they are from is no longer safe. You don’t take your family on these boats where people might not survive for fun, you do it out of necessity. Because where you’re fleeing is even more dangerous.
“So I hope people empathise and are moved and changed by our film. Because we need to do better.”
His House is available on Netflix from October 30