Director Christopher Smith‘s genre output runs the gamut in style and tone, demonstrating a filmmaker consistently looking to explore various horror angles. From a brutal underground chiller in Creep to the mind-bending slasher at sea, Triangle, to Black Death’s introspective Middle-Aged epic, Smith gives unique spins on familiar subgenres. That continues with his latest, The Banishing, a period ghost story that brings one of England’s most notoriously haunted houses to life on screen. True to form, Smith approaches this Gothic haunted house tale with an emphasis on psychological horror in a slow-burn character study.
After an opening that highlights a defaced bible and a grisly murder/suicide, the late ’30s set haunter introduces Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her young daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce). They’re traveling to a rural estate to meet Marianne’s husband Linus (John Heffernan). Linus has been assigned to serve as the new priest for this parish, and the sprawling countryside estate- built on the ruins of an abbey- will be his family’s new home. The same house in which the opening’s murder took place, and it’s far from the only dark secret dwelling within the labyrinthine walls. Nearly straight away, Adelaide develops a new imaginary friend, and Marianne suffers increasingly bizarre visions. As the eerie occurrences ramp up with an alarming frequency, Marianne seeks help from oddball spiritualist Harry Price (Sean Harris), an enemy of the Church.
The Gothic estate at the center of The Banishing is based on the infamous Borley Rectory, a haunting made famous thanks to the investigation by true-life psychic researcher Harry Price. Yet screenwriters David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines are more interested in exploring the house’s new inhabitants rather than its sordid history. In Gothic story fashion, Marianne presents a standard damsel in distress as her husband and his intimidating boss Malachi (John Lynch) discount her claims that something is supernaturally amiss about the place. It pushes her toward the eccentric Harry Price, played to scene-chewing, flamboyant perfection by Harris. The narrative explores Marianne’s precarious relationship with Linus, especially as the Church threatens to pull him further away from her as it entrenches him within a larger conspiracy and the strain in the parental bond with adoptive daughter Adelaide as the house tempts her away.
Much of these plot threads ultimately wind up underdeveloped. The narrative gets bogged down under the weight of its ambition. With World War II just getting started, the screenwriters want to tie the central theme of religious repression to the rise of fascism. While much of Marianne’s conflict with Linus stems from his duties to an oppressive Church, its connection to a fascist Europe isn’t explored in an organic and meaningful way. Nor does it bother to flesh out Adelaide and how her adoption factors into the family dynamics, outside of a simplified explanation of how she fell under the houses’ sway so quickly.
The Banishing is at its strongest when it focuses on the unique paranormal elements. Psychological time loops, an eerie mirror, and nightmarish hallucinations are all bolstered by stunning cinematography and off-kilter camerawork to convey a claustrophobic and evil presence closing in on Marianne. Findlay makes for an effective lead as a woman struggling against societal pressures as well as the paranormal. There are genuine scares dispersed throughout, but the horror gets lost a bit in an overly crowded story that takes on far too much for its short runtime. Still, Harris’s charismatic portrayal of a historical figure and some fresh ideas makes this haunted house story worth exploring.
The Banishing releases on Shudder on April 15, 2021.