Not many will acknowledge it, but I personally believe we are in the midst of a renaissance of the horror genre. I would posit that much of that comes from the increasingly diverse voices working in horror today. Yes, white filmmaker Ari Aster brought us two of the most talked about genre entries of the past twenty years (Hereditary, Midsommar). And, yes, white filmmaker Robert Eggers brought us the great The VVitch. But Jordan Peele’s Get Out raced to a Best Picture nomination. His Us was arguably an even better, more thematically rich genre pic. On television, Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country compellingly explores race relations in 1950s America set against some pretty scary period and supernatural shit.
And, dropping today in the streaming world and in theaters (where venturing outdoors to an actual theater can be as scary as anything you’ll see onscreen), are two new entries from Black filmmakers that I would most assuredly add to the heavy roster of great, diverse product within the horror genre.
First up, Netflix’s His House is the stunning feature film debut of British writer/director Remi Weeks. The film brings us the story of two African refugees seeking asylum in Britain. They’re placed in temporary public housing and suffer greatly at the hands of forces in both the physical and supernatural world. The horror here works on two fronts. First, the political horrors of being in this world as a refugee. Of having to flee your own country because life there is too dangerous to live. Of the difficult, terrifying choices you have to make to reach safety and, maybe one day, prosperity. And of the burden refugees carry from the outcome of those choices. That, of course, materializes in the supernatural terror they’re faced with in this ramshackle public housing. Is it madness? Is it real? Or are they haunted by those choices? The truth lies perhaps in all three.
Weeks directs this film with the confidence and grace of a seasoned veteran. The claustrophobia of the decrepit public housing echoes the early films of Roman Polanski. You feel the tension of wanting to remain in presumed interior safety but needing to escape the terrors within for sanity’s sake. There isn’t a wasted moment in this brutally efficient film, one that should spawn a new horror sub-genre – the political horror film. The performances from Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu are top-notch as well with a slight edge given to Mosaku if only because of her completely polar opposite, but equally brilliant, performance in Lovecraft Country.
Spell director Mark Tonderai hails from film and television (Hush, The House At the End of the Street in film and Castle Rock, Doctor Who in television), and his expertise guides what, in lesser hands, might have been a fairly route thriller. To boil it down in oversimplified terms, imagine Spell as a Black Misery. Omari Hardwick stars as Marquis Woods, an affluent Black man who escaped an abusive upbringing in Appalachia but returns to his roots for the funeral of his father. He and his family crash in a thunderstorm, and he wakes under the care of Miss Eloise (Loretta Devine) whose “loving care” involves a heady dose of Hoodoo.
This is revelatory work from Loretta Devine, one of the naturally sweetest actresses I’ve ever seen. Yet, she curdles that sweetness into fierce determination and strength without being a caricature of evil. This is a woman who has survived by any means necessary. The Hoodoo she practices is her world, and although it is abhorrent to viewers, Devine makes it feel as natural to the character as breathing the clear mountain air.
On a broader scale, we’ve seen the material before, again most closely to Rob Reiner’s Misery. But Tonderai and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer explore deeper themes here. Marquis smoothed out his rougher, angrier edges with a transition to a white, monied New York City world. Yet, to survive Miss Eloise and his Appalachian misfortune, he has to tap into a deep-seeded sense of Black rage. Given the recent Black Lives Matter movement and protests, the film could not resonate at a better time. It’s even better with that undercurrent enhancing the main narrative. Thank the brilliant direction from Tonderai for that.
His House is now available on Netflix.
Spell is now playing in selected theaters and on VOD.