Blake Backlash watches a low-budget horror film about power and misogyny.
We have not been in The House of Him for very long before this man, this killer, Him taunts a woman he wants to make his victim by demanding that she smile. His demand is frightening because we know that women are told every day that they have to smile by men – men they know and strangers – who will belittle or threaten them if they don’t.
Robert Florence knows that too. It’s no coincidence that one of this killer’s weapons, the demand for a smile, is a tool men frequently use to try and exert power over women. The film is an explicit examination of the dynamics of misogyny and domestic violence. So we start inside a house that we will never leave. The first thing we see is Him (Richard Rankin) killing Sophie as her friend Anna (Louise Stewart) watches.
Part of the reason the film stays inside this house is to do with how the film was made. It cost less than £900 and was shot entirely in Robert Florence’s mum’s house. The filmmakers have done a good job making the interior of the house feel sinister: windows and doors are boarded up, TV static that lights a room flickers from behind a smear of black paint over the screen. And like all the best films made on the cheap, the location blesses us with some cool happy accidents. At one point He puts his ear to door of the house and, if you look at the boards behind him, you can see a wee spider crawl out from behind his head, almost as if it had exited His corrupted mind via his ear.
Staying inside is about more than just claustrophobic use of interiors, though. In this film, there is something disturbing and uncanny about the very idea of being inside a house. We hear bits of a radio broadcast, telling us things are going wrong everywhere. And at first this might sound like the snatches of the news we hear in every apocalyptic zombie film out there. But the warning we hear in those films, to stay safe and stay indoors, has been reversed here, the radio is telling everyone that being inside means being in a bad place. That’s where the ‘encounters’ are happening. Like a lot of my favourite horror films, it’s hard to tell at first what kind of horror film The House of Him is. Should we be scared of the masked killer, or the apocalypse? Are the words coming out the radio really coming from the world outside the house?
Those words from the radio are written carefully enough to make you shiver. One of the reasons I love horror films is because they can seem like the best place to look for strikingly composed shots and sequences. But perhaps too many of them neglect the potential that words have to put us on edge. The House of Him doesn’t, Florence uses what is said as well as what is seen to frighten us. There’s a sequence where Anna and Him talk and have a cup of tea… and talk. The rhythm of this scene reminded me of the dark dialogue you might find in one of the best episodes of Tales From the Unexpected, as well as the word-driven struggles for power that get played out in a Pinter or Mamet play.
Because the film is about power – how could a film about misogyny not be? Throughout the film He insists that resisting him or challenging him is futile. At one point he cries out ‘Make all the noise you want, this fucking house is mine’. And I was reminded of how those who have power exercise so much of that power trying to perpetuate the idea that they will always have power: we’re in charge, we always have been, protesting will not get you anywhere. But as we come to the end of The House of Him, the balance of power shifts.
Some of the most startling visuals in the film occur with this change – things that looked one way, start to look another way. For most of the film He has kept his face hidden under a mask – but he has to take if off and we see his face. And almost as soon as this happens, a woman appears out of the darkness outside the door, dressed in some kind of bio-suit that means we cannot see her face. An empty room becomes filled with the thumping darkness of a nightclub. An empty stair-lift creeps up the stairs. My favourite visual shift involves Sophie (Kirsty Strain), who we see Him kill at the start of the film. At one point in the film Anna asks Him if they can cover up Sophie’s body. He contemptuously drapes a tea-towel over her heard. But when things start to be different, that tea-towel, and the way it hides Sophie’s face, stop being visual reminders of his power and start to threaten it.
Sadly, one has not had to look very far or very hard recently to find numerous depressing examples of the ways that male hatred of women turns threatening and violent. What is even more depressing is how much that is written and said about such abuse seeks to make it seem excusable or even natural. The House of Him is angry about all of this, I think, but not quite despairing. It is a horror film about something that is horrific but when change occurs in The House of Him it begins with someone being offered compassion and understanding. And if that sounds too woolly, then you should know that this compassion exists right alongside an insistence that those with power who have done something wrong need to be held to account for what they did. If they are not, if we let them away with it, we’ll keep living in the House of Him.
You can watch The House of Him on vimeo right now. If you do, 10% of what you pay to rent or buy it will go to women’s aid charities.