The Banishing is a welcome-back for director Christopher Smith, rendering fresh what could have been boilerplate, and keeping its human horrors palpably textual.
It’s curious that director Christopher Smith seems to have never really caught on in the horror world, even working within a genre given to niche fandoms and cultish devotion to obscure filmmakers. It’s a shame, as his early run of features — from 2004’s subterranean slasher Creep through 2010’s Black Death — represent a kind of platonic ideal for low- and mid-budget filmmaking. Sharp writing, a firm grasp of atmosphere, strong female leads, well-timed spurts of violence, and the occasional jumbled timeline all make appearances across this run of four films. The 2010s saw Smith switch gears to a prestige literary adaptation for British television, as well as a poorly-received detour into neo-noir crime thriller, aptly enough titled Detour, and a family-friendly Christmas comedy that appears to have never been released in the US, 2014’s Get Santa. While someone like Mike Flanagan’s star continuously grew throughout the decade — most obviously due to fortuitous ventures with Netflix — Smith floundered. Perhaps fittingly, then, it’s in no small part due to the success of Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House series that we now have Smith’s welcome return to horror filmmaking, The Banishing, surely produced to capitalize on the the former’s high profile. A kind of British variation on The Amityville Horror, give or take a dash of The Innocents, it’s a classical haunted house picture that manages to deliver solid, old-fashioned scares, with the kind of voluptuous cinematography that’s far removed from the beige flatness of Netflix’s house style.
Set in the early 1930s, with Nazism on the rise but before England has officially entered WWII, The Banishing is loosely based on the famous Borley Rectory, known as the “most haunted house” in England. Marianne Forster (Jessica Brown Findlay) has just moved into the manor with her daughter, Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) and husband, Linus (John Heffernan), a nebbish vicar who’s been assigned to the local parish. It’s an awkward family dynamic; Adelaide is very obviously not Linus’ blood relation, and it’s not entirely clear if he has married Marianne out of love or some sense of charity. For her part, Marianne appears genuinely excited to start fresh in a new home in a new town, although Linus is quick to quash her enthusiasms and repeatedly rebuffs her attempts to consummate their marriage. A quiet girl, Adelaide seems stricken by some kind of trauma, the nature of which becomes clearer as the film progresses. There’s also a secondary plot about an occultist, Harry Reed (a real person, portrayed here by a scenery-chewing Sean Harris, clearly having a blast) battling the local Bishop, a fierce man named Malachi (John Lynch), who knows more about the goings-on at the house than he lets on. Malachi cajoles and needles Linus into staying, even as it becomes clear that the family is in some sort of danger. It’s all pretty familiar stuff; the house is, of course, haunted, and strange things begin happening almost immediately upon the family’s arrival. The interest, then, is not necessarily in the broader scope of the story, but in how Smith burrows into it and makes something potentially boilerplate into something that feels fresh, and even personal. Smith relishes creeping down dark hallways and playing with mirrors, bisecting images into halves and revealing phantom-like doppelgängers lingering in reflective surfaces. He doesn’t cheat with easy jump scares, instead allowing scenes to play out at length and emphasizing a kind of building dread. It’s a different, entirely superior form of suspense-building.
Much praise must be given to Findlay, a Downton Abbey veteran who plays Marianne as a strong-willed, opinionated woman who nonetheless seems reluctant to rankle her husband. Refreshingly, this isn’t a case of projecting 21st century feminism back in time and then castigating the past for its lack of enlightenment while feigning contemporary superiority. Instead, we have a reasonably accurate portrayal of someone who’s clearly intelligent and bristles at her station in life while still recognizing the institutional forces aligned against her. Much like in his underrated Triangle, Smith allows for a complicated portrait of motherhood; Marianne seems devoted to Adelaide, but decisions were made in the past that fundamentally altered their relationship, perhaps forever, and Marianne gets frustrated and annoyed with her child when she misbehaves. In keeping with his long-standing aversion to organized religion, Smith portrays Linus as weak-willed, even a bully, and that’s all before the house begins playing tricks on his mind. Smith’s critique of religion also formed the backbone of Black Death; that earlier film, as with The Banishing, depicts the church as a powerful institutional force that hypocritically masks its own penchant for (frequently misogynistic) violence behind a veil of respectability. Linus wants credit for saving a “fallen woman,” a noble enough concept in the abstract, but one which seems to hold no interest in Marianne as a human being. This dovetails with the nature of the spirit haunting the manor, who’s own tragic backstory mirrors Marianne’s struggles with bearing a child out of wedlock. Like the recent The Power, The Banishing doesn’t bother with subtext, instead making a clear statement about the forces aligned against women and these same women subsequently reclaiming their voice. Enlisting Harris’ good-natured occultist in a final bid to vanquish these spirits, ultimately The Banishing ends not on violent retribution, but in an attempt at reconciliation. It’s a fitting capstone to a clearly above-average genre effort. It’s good to have Christopher Smith back.
You can stream Christopher Smith’s The Banishing on Shudder beginning on April 15.