I have very much been in director Christopher Smith’s camp since his one-two horror punch of Creep and Severance back in the mid-2000s, and I’ve most enjoyed many of his films since then, including Black Death and his last film, 2016’s Detour. His latest, The Banishing, is his version of the apparently true story of a manor that is considered the most haunted house in England, Borley Rectory. It’s there that Rev. Lionel “Linus” Algernon Foyster (John Hefferman) and his wife, Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay), moved into just before World War II broke out (according to the movie; in real life, they moved in at the tail end of 1930), with her young daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce).
The film is somewhat vague for a great deal of its running time on exactly what is going on in the establishment, but there are sounds, voices, things moving, images in mirrors that don’t make sense, and eventually, shadowy figures that seem to have singled out the little girl as a target. During the course of the movie, we discover a link between Marianne’s secret past and the house’s history, and the threat cannot be properly dealt with until both are fully revealed. To make that process easier, Marianne enlists the help of notorious “occultist” Harry Price (Sean Harris), who knows enough about the house’s dark history and patterns with previous occupants (some of whom were driven insane by whatever lurked within and died there by various means).
So much of The Banishing seems half-baked. For example, it’s clear that the good reverend has hangups about sex, even after getting married to a single mother, and he’s unable or unwilling to consummate their union. The mindset makes him violently jealous and unnecessarily suspicious of his wife, thanks in part to the presence in the house planting visions in his head of her sleeping with other men. Also, I didn’t much care what happened to Adelaide because she’s an obnoxious creature almost from the minute she enters the house. One of the tricks of the trade for these spirits is dividing children from their parents, so this makes the girl even more hateful and less worthy of concern over her well-being. So when she actually is snatched up by the ghost(s) who want her, I was happy not to hear her voice for a while.
There’s a terrific supporting performance by John Lynch as the bishop in charge of the area that includes Borley Rectory, and he clearly knows more about the hauntings and history of the place than he’s letting on. His role is perhaps a bit too pure evil, but he gives us permission to find new reasons to dislike organized religion and all of its secrets. In fact, I happen to really enjoy all of the actors in The Banishing, especially Brown Findlay (who played the youngest daughter on Downton Abbey before [spoiler alert] she was killed off, giving us our first real reason to sob openly at that series).
Director Smith has a proven talent for setting the stage of his horror works, giving us some sense of what is going on while holding back the best bits for the end. But with this movie, I grew increasingly frustrated with how confusing it is a majority of the time. Yes, eventually it all gets sorted out, but The Banishing left me looking for something concrete to hold onto for too long, and eventually I lost interest, even if some of the characters and situations got a bit freaky. There’s a great deal of talk about pagan rituals that were practices on the land years earlier, and frankly, the film could have used a bit more of that to kick-start this decidedly average haunted house story.
The film is now streaming on Shudder.
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