Set in late-1930s England, with the specter of World War II looming over the landscape, Christopher Smith’s The Banishing captures plenty of doom. But unfortunately, its haunted-house tale feels like a hodgepodge of horror movies we’ve all seen before, even with intriguing period details and a few other interest-adding elements.
Jessica Brown Findlay (Brave New World) is probably the film’s strongest asset; she stars as Marianne, a young mother who’s recently married a vicar, Linus (Dracula’s John Heffernan), though she finds out pretty fast that he’s far less interested in having a wife than he is currying favour with his bishop, the slippery Malachi (John Lynch, who fans of 1993’s The Secret Garden may recognise as Lord Archibald Craven). Marianne arrives at the imposing rectory where Linus has been posted with her precocious daughter, Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce), in tow; the girl’s out-of-wedlock birth has marked Marianne as a charity case, despite her staunch “I have no regrets” attitude.
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Directed by Christopher Smith (Severance, Black Death) and written by David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines, The Banishing establishes right from its opening scene that the rectory is a place where spooky, terrible, murder-y things happen. (The film calls it “Morley Rectory,” a nod to the real-life Borley Rectory, the so-called “most haunted house in England,” whose tragic history influences the film’s story.) When Marianne comes to live there with Linus, she has a paranormal experience on the very first night, which unfortunately robs The Banishing of any kind of tension or suspense right out of the gate. Instead of a slow build that might make us question whether or not Marianne is really seeing and hearing the apparent illusions the house is presenting to her, the movie’s pretty matter-of-fact about it: these ghosts are not shy about playing mind games and trying to drive you insane. Even the Amityville Horror house took a little while to start preying on its new occupants, but Morley Rectory is wide awake on day one.
This rapid development might be acceptable if the frights were solid, but there’s not much in The Banishing that’ll startle even a casual horror fan (oh whoa, a haunted mirror? Noooo!) Around the time that Marianne is hearing her first sinister whispers from within the walls, Adelaide discovers a stash of creepy dolls — whose ranks include a blind woman and a trio of shrouded monks. They soon start popping up in ghost form and acting out scenes from the home’s gruesome past.
While all of this is going on, Marianne is dealing with the fact that Linus, who treats her only slightly better than an inconvenient houseguest, is somehow also incredibly jealous when he spots her innocently speaking with the family’s driver. Malachi is also constantly on the fringes; it’s clear that he’s got ties to the mysterious order that’s overseen the property since its days as a monastery, and that his influence extends to matchmaking Linus and Marianne for reasons that are murky…but probably malevolent.
If not for Brown Findlay’s sympathetic performance — Marianne is outspoken, opinionated, as feminist as she can be given the circumstances, and not ashamed of her “scandalous” past; she also has a pretty fab 1930s wardrobe — The Banishing would feel even more generic, especially when it introduces yet more tropes (including “restless spirit needs redemption to find peace”). But there’s one other character who adds some flair to the movie’s religious cult/crisis of faith/creepy dolls/mindfuckery/haunted house/repression/possession/inspired by a true story jumble. That’s the flamboyant “occultist” named after, and presumably based on, the real-life psychic researcher Harry Price (played by Prometheus’ Sean Harris).
Again, we’ve seen variations on this character before, but any time Harry’s onscreen, The Banishing feels a little less stuffy, and while Brown Findlay gives it her all, you can’t help but wish the story was more focused on Harry rather than Marianne. A boozy, flashy-dressed, fancy-dancing pagan toting dusty tomes full of dark history who gets beat up by church-employed thugs and crashes in boarding houses adjacent to the haunted mansions he’s investigating? Yeah, where’s that movie?
The Banishing premieres Thursday, April 15 on Shudder.