The ‘Haunted House’ is an absolute classic in the horror genre. Throw in inspiration from local legends and folklore, and you have a recipe for something that’ll pique the interest of those taking the story in. However, the modern audience is on the constant search for what’s new to inject into the familiar. This seems to be something taken into consideration in Christopher Smith’s THE BANISHING, but with little success. While the film is loosely inspired by the presumed hauntings of the Borley Rectory, the film doesn’t trust itself enough to dabble too far off course from the predictable. With uneven pacing and indecision surrounding fleshing out potential thematic elements introduced along the way, viewers will be left wanting.
Taking place in England of the 1930s, with the rapid rise of fascism in the background, the reverend Linus (John Heffernan) has relocated his family to a rural and isolated post. With the church’s favor dwindling as tensions rise over the prospects of incoming war, Linus has his work cut out for him. Linus’s superior, Malachi (John Lynch), informs the young reverend that the previous occupants of the post moved to warmer shores. The truth, though, is far more sinister, and it will require Linus’s wife, Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay), and his daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) to move into the stately estate they will occupy to set things off.
Soon after their arrival, strange events start to happen. And, to no one’s surprise, it starts to happen around Marianne and her daughter. Creepy dolls that no one should give their child are just sitting around for Adelaide to launch onto. Dark figured dressed as monks ominously move through the estate grounds. And, as time passes by, tensions between this family heighten as rest becomes non-existent. As it becomes more clear something is fixating on Adelaide, Marianne is left to her own devices to seek help as Linus dismisses her as mad. Will she figure things out or will whatever is haunting them claim their souls? You’ll have to watch to find out.
THE BANISHING wastes no time throwing its audience into the action. The screenplay’s introduction sets the stage for the suspiciousness and gaslighting shenanigans that are awaiting the viewer. Like most classic haunted house tales, especially those in the more Gothic sense, Marianne is centered as the protagonist. As is oft the case, the young woman is left to uncover the secrets of the home to ensure her family’s safety. These hauntings manifest through Smith’s execution of the creepy and haunting. He reminds us of the inherent eeriness mirrors have, using manipulated reflections to make the hair stand on end. The proverbial spiral this family goes through is earned. With the sound direction in this department and a combination of convincing performances from the core cast, the audience is easily taken to where this type of film needs them to be.
With that said, the story beats were predictable in THE BANISHING, which is a shame. Certain story elements that were introduced were frustratingly left unexplored. Had they been explored even further, it might have made for a less predictable and – overall – stronger haunting. With the rise of fascism looming strongly in the background of this tale, not enough is filled in for the audience to connect the dots to the infiltration of pro-fascist sentiment growing with the Christian Church of the time period. By the time we get to the gotcha! moment towards the end of the film, anyone not paying attention will be left wondering where the twist came from. Similarly, there is much that could have been explored about the misogyny towards pregnant women who bore children out of wedlock (as this is significant to the film), but what viewers get is surface-level material.
What holds THE BANISHING together, though, are the performances. This reviewer would argue that the actors’ commitment to their performances also helps gloss over some of the more glaring development problems in the film’s script. Jessica Brown Findlay’s performance, in particular, as Marianne grounds the film as it increases in supernatural happenings. As viewers watch Marianne struggle to maintain a connection with Adelaide, the gradual deterioration of her relationship (what we see of it anyway) with Linus, and growing pressure from Malachi to stay inside their home, Brown Findlay takes us easily through that emotional journey Marianne undergoes. Her grounded performance contrasts with Sean Harris’s eccentric occultist character, Harry Prince. As scene partners, Harris has the flexibility to go more over-the-top and he does so without being a complete caricature of this character stock type. All in all, the performances are a great gift in this film.
Overall, THE BANISHING is hard to grade. There could have been something great to explore with various elements introduced throughout its script, but there were areas where development was neglected or not considered. It is upon writing out this review that this critic realized how much the performances helped to hide some of the more glaring errors. This is a testament to the actors featured and their hard work. However, it does make one wonder what could have been if the script was workshopped further before going into production. On the surface, the film works as a general haunting, hitting those creepy marks with aplomb. But, for some viewers, they’ll be left wanting.
THE BANISHING will be released on Shudder on April 15, 2021.
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