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Christopher Smith Takes On The Horrors Of The Past And Present In “The Banishing”

Monday, April 26, 2021 | Interviews

By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT

A young vicar and his family move into a house with a sinister past that threatens their very souls in THE BANISHING, a frightening new Shudder original. Based loosely on the story of Borely Rectory, a house long regarded as the most haunted in England, the film stars Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) as Marianne Forster, wife of troubled clergyman and former missionary, Linus Forster (John Heffernan). Assigned to Morely Rectory, a stately, Gothic home built on the former site of an abbey that was home to a murderous sect of perverse monks, Linus, Marianne, and their young daughter, Adelaide (Anya McKenna Bruce) soon fall under the house’s ghostly spell. With the help of a disgraced occultist (Sean Harris), it’s up to Marianne to unlock Morley Hall’s secrets and save her family.

Set in 1938 against the backdrop of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, THE BANISHING blends the period trappings of the classic English ghost story with themes that remain relevant in the 21st century. At the helm of this innovative take on the haunted house movie is filmmaker Christopher Smith. Smith, who’s established a reputation as one of horror’s freshest and most original voices thanks to such films as Creep, Severance, Triangle and Black Death, recently sat down with Rue Morgue to discuss THE BANISHING and his unique view of the genre.

How did you get involved with THE BANISHING?

Just over three years ago, I read a script that I really liked. A number of the projects that I had been writing – I had written about two horror movies since Detour – they just weren’t quite there. Some needed a bigger budget. Sometimes, we just hadn’t got there. And then Jason [Newmark], the producer, he’s done a few of my films, said he just read this movie and he really liked it. He’d been attached as a producer. I read it and liked it. It was set in the ’30s, which I felt was a period which really resonated for the rise of fascism and what’s going today. I thought there was a nice parallel there. At the time, the script was definitely geared toward a bigger budget than we had. So we started to dig into it.

Were you familiar with the story of Borley Rectory before going into the project?

I was and I wasn’t. I mentioned to Rafe Spall who was in Get Santa and became a mate of mine that I was doing a ghost story and asked if he might be interested in getting involved. He said, “I’ve just done a TV show about [Borley Rectory].” I wasn’t aware until then, and then I dug into it, and then I realized that [the script] was based on real characters. I kind of felt like, let’s move it away from that. I grew up watching all those Hammer movies. I really felt like Sean Harris’ character [occultist Harry Reed, inspired by real-life paranormal investigator Harry Price] was almost like a Peter Cushing character. Let’s push him. Make him campier. Make him slightly more arch. The charcters feel like they sort of belong in another generation. That was the ambition. I’m not a believer in the supernatural, so when someone says, “Is it based on a true story?” I’m like, “No! Of course it’s not based on a true story!” People believed they were haunted there, and they’ve got a scary story, you know, but I believe that they brought those fears there themselves. We made it much more about the internalized story of the characters in the moment and what are they bringing and [how] does the house have a profound effect on them. It’s about the way history keeps repeating itself – this is the theme of the whole thing: cycles of violence. All of the things that happen in the house are also happening in the real world. That was the plan.

The Hammer influence is very apparent, but did you go back and look at any classic haunted house films like The Haunting or The Legend  of Hell House for inspiration?

As a kid I grew up, as we all did, watching the Amitiyville movies and all of the American stuff. I wanted to have [THE BANISHING] lean into the British idea of the quintessential Englishness of the posh manor house and sort of peel away at the onion. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the biggest influence on me. I wanted the film to ask, “Is it the house or is it in Marianne’s head?” That’s the thing I like most about The Shining. You’re unsure if the protagonist is faulty or if the house is making him do it or if it’s a mixture of the two. There’s always the shifting sand, and that’s what I wanted to do with Jessica Brown Findlay’s character. She’s carrying shame with her that’s been put upon her by society, and when she can free herself of that shame, she will be free. Whereas Sean’s character should have shame in the sense that he’s this completely kind of flowery, ridiculous character for the period but has none and has worked through it. 

Were there any tropes or clichés associated with the haunted house genre that you consciously tried to avoid?

It’s tricky. If you avoid it too much, it becomes dull. There’s always a sense of what plays for the popcorn versus what annoys the cineaste! [Laughs] Like the mirror shot. You’ve got that scene in there where there’s the mirror and someone comes behind. If I’m going to do that, how do I then make that mirror shot interesting later on. We were aware of it. It’s a catch-22. What we might look at as a cliché, others would say, “That was exciting!” Creep was very popular when it came out, but I wouldn’t make that film now the way I made it then. It was actually quite popular because it plays on all the clichés! So it’s kind of trying to find that balance, I think. My ambition with this film, and with any horror movie, but particularly with this one, is to try to create a sense of dread because dread isn’t a cliché. Dread is the quiet moments in The Exorcist where Father Karras is listening to his tape recorder play backwards. It’s that simmering sense of something’s about to happen. When you don’t have CGI budgets, you’ve just got to look and lean into the camera. We were filming this in quite an old fashioned way. We didn’t have all the budget to do everything, so we had to think a little bit harder on it.


Tell us about THE BANISHING’s cast.

There’s Jessica Brown Findlay, whom I’ve worked with in the past. I think Jess is just an incredible actor. She brings a sort of simultaneous strength and weakness to Marianne. She’s not ever subservient to any of the men in the film in the sense that she’s never running to them for help. None of the men in the film help her, apart from when she eventually turns up to find Sean Harris’ character. And he’s drunk. So even then, it’s like, “I’m let down again. I don’t need male help.” I felt that she could bring that strength to it. If she’s going to be the “final girl,” if you like, what is the final girl, now? If you made a slasher movie now, in the traditional sense, I don’t think having a young beautiful girl being chased by a man with a knife plays anymore. I don’t think you can do that anymore with the same abandon that you used to be able to in the ’80s. It’s really kind of misogynist. Horror is having to catch up with the times in a way. You can see how far Alien was ahead of its time. I thought that Jess brought that kind of strength and fragility.

Sean Harris, who was in my first film, Creep, and I have stayed in touch. I mentioned that there was a film I was going to do and asked if he would be interested. He read the script and liked it and immediately said, “I want to go big with Harry. I want to make a flowery guy who exudes on screen.” We were talking about big characters that we liked like Peter Cushing, Anthony Hopkins in Coppola’s Dracula and trying to let [him] kind of run with it a bit. He turned up on set with his red hair. He looked like the bride of Dracula! [Laughs] I said, “Oh my God! Really?” He was like, “Chris, don’t worry about it! I can pull it off!” So I said, “Alright. Go for it.”

And then, John Lynch, who I’ve worked with a few times, plays Father Malachi. I’ve worked with John about five times now. John’s fabulous. We kind of pulled people in that we knew. Obviously, the young girl, Anya McKenna-Bruce, we auditioned for. It was a really nice film to put together in regard to the cast because it wasn’t a 7 million pound budget like Triangle, so you didn’t have to be thinking about everybody. You could kind of go for who you like. It was liberating in that way.

Does having so many familiar faces in the cast make your job easier?

Yeah. I used to always look at filmmakers before I started making films [and ask], “Why do you always have the same people in your films?” It does make them easier. It’s easier in the sense that you don’t have to jump over some bridges of getting to know each other. Casting is a bit like holding a dinner party, people tell me. I don’t hold dinner parties. My biggest relation would be like getting your mates around the house for a drink. You want to have the right balance of people – the lunatics, the quieter ones, the dry wits. You want a nice balance at a party. And I think that what you can find if you know those people is that you know how they will fit into the room. You also know how far you can push them. There’s a shorthand. I’ve worked with Sean before, I’ve worked with John [Heffernan] many times. I’ve worked with Jess before. They’re not going to turn up and give you the same thing. Like Sean knowingly wanted to be big and go for it. And I love his character. It’s really interesting and odd, and maybe he wouldn’t have done that if it would have been with someone he hadn’t met before.

“When people look in the mirror and we talk about what’s happening in our back garden and our streets and in our own bedrooms…that’s the stuff that creeps me out.”

Anya McKenna-Bruce, the young actress who plays Adelaide, is in some of the most intense sequences in the film. Does directing children in horror present any unique challenges?

This is the second time [I’ve directed a child actor]. I did it once before in Get Santa, and the young kid in that, Kit Connor, is very similar in temperament to Anya in the sense that they kind of got old souls. Anya is actually older. She’s playing 10 in the film, and she was just 13 when we did it. We were fortunate that she was quite short at the time. When she came to do her ADR about a year later, she had grown about a foot and a half. They’ve got old souls in the sense that they can listen. Her mum was on set who was great. She wasn’t scared. Jess got on with Anya so well and it came out as a nice vibe on set. I’d like to claim credit, but there’s none. She just did it! She was great. The darker it got, the weirder it got, the happier she got! She loved it!

The shadow of fascism looms over THE BANISHING. Was setting the film against the backdrop of Neville Chamberlain’s pre-war appeasement of Hitler a concious comment on the current political climate and the return of nationalism in the West?

One-hunrded percent! I grew up, as did you, in a world where we were the good guys. How does that stuff happen? How did that happen in Germany? Oh, my God! That could only happen in Germany, [or] that’s kind of what I thought. Now, I know that’s absolutely not the case. It’s happening at our backdoor and your backdoor. It’s happened with Brexit. There’s a prayer for peace in Europe at the end of the film. I really feel that this film is my little comment on Brexit. Is this the England that you want to go back to? That’s my little punk moment! I’m glad you noticed that!

Would you ever consider tackling another great British ghost story, perhaps expanding on Sean Harris’ BANISHING character Harry Reed?

Interestingly, yes. We were very much talking about that as we were doing it. I’d like to continue the story of who Sean is and what Sean’s story is. Absolutely. I’m glad you said that. Sean will be very pleased. You never know, really. So many things have to line up for these things to happen. That character came about because of Sean. Another actor would have played it very differently. [He] brings such a strange intensity to that role. He’s absolutely interesting in every scene he’s in. There are two things happening in the film: he expands that strand more than perhaps it was on paper. And Jess, likewise, expands the sort of feminist side of the movie. So in actual fact, you could have done without the Sean bit had just the feminist horror movie and, likewise, you could go off without Jess and had the Sean side of the story, as well. And I think the film feels that at times. You’ve got these two things happening. It’s intentional that Sean feels at odds with the environment. He’s a tango-dancer. He has red-dyed hair. He wears suede clothes like he’s a Beat poet ten to twenty years before his time. He’s the sort of character that you’d imagine William S. Burroughs would have hung out with. Is he straight? Is he gay? Does he do heroin? Maybe. Has he been hanging out in Morroco? These are all things me and Sean spoke about.

Of course, the inspiration for Harry Reed is real-life paranormal investigator Harry Price.

Yes.
We looked into the Harry Price character, but we didn’t want it to be too tied in because these are real people. I’m always conscious of [a descendent] going, “That’s not like my dad!” or, “My grandad wasn’t like that!” We were very conscious of that!

What attracts you to the horror genre?

I’d always watched horror, but I didn’t sit there thinking that I wanted to make horror movies. It came to me by accident almost with Creep where I had written another film that was a thriller, and someone said, “You should write a horror movie because they’re easier to get made. Neil Marshall’s [Dog Soldiers, The Descent] just made one.” So I was like, “Alright. I’ll write one, then.” And I wrote Creep. It literally happened that way, and before I knew it, I had written four! I started to realize more and more that I really enjoy the things that you can say with the genre. I think the best recent example would be Get Out, which is just a brilliant film. It’s a brilliant film with a beautifully realized message, and it’s a great night out in the cinema. That’s when the genre’s at its best when you can say something and still entertain. I’m kind of attracted to it for that reason. When people look in the mirror and we talk about what’s happening in our back garden and our streets and in our own bedrooms…that’s the stuff that creeps me out. That’s what horror lets you do. It lets you put a mirror up to society.

Do you feel pigeonholed as a horror director?

It’s kind of a blessing. The curse to it, it’s not a curse, but if there is, it’s that there’s lots of people who don’t like or understand horror. If you look at Sam Raimi, you go, “Is he a horror director because he did Evil Dead?’ Yes, but he did Spider-Man. Are you a genre director, I think, is the key. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve got the ability, or, the permission, if you like. On the one hand, it makes it easier to make horror movies for someone who’s made them. The times when it can trip you up is when the perception of people gets in the way. If someone wants to produce a stately home drama, they’re not going to look at the director of Creep, so, you would lose jobs. But, I think the loyalty and faith of the fans who are into the genre is worth so much more than losing out on a snooty TV costume drama. I’d rather do THE BANISHING. They’re always slightly scared that when they meet you, you’re going to be this really odd, slightly goth-y kind of character. If you look at people like David Cronenberg, who’s supposed to be the loveliest, sweetest family man, and then you see his films and you’d think he’d be a maniac! Often, the people who can make really dark stuff are actually really happy in their own lives. The guys who are telling all the jokes, they’re the ones who are depressed. The comics, they’re ones who are sad.

Is there a particular type or subgenre of horror film you’d like to direct in the future?

I want to make the quintessential horror film. I do want to do an Exorcist, a film that really shakes people up. We’re working on one now where I’m going to take everything I’ve learned from every film and see if I can really go for it. Each film’s different. I remember the brilliant line when Prince was asked, “What’s your favorite song?” He said, “The next one.” And I really do feel like that. The films are your passion when you’re in that one, and then you have to release it, and it’s almost like a bad breakup. There’s no good breakup because you could get the greatest reviews ever, and you get one bad one and you’re upset. Or you get the greatest reviews ever, and it doesn’t do anything at the box office. There’s always a kind of letting go. Usually, you’re back to start the next one so you’re kind of already going, “I don’t care about her anymore!” [Laughs] I’m still in the process of caring and wanting people to really like [THE BANISHING].

What’s next for Christopher Smith?

I’m doing a film called Consecration. . . It’s about an investigation that suddenly gets very dark and supernatural very quickly. So again, it’s starting from a place of reality and then it leans into demons and the supernatural. What I want to try to do with it is replicate the feeling I got when I used to watch video nasties as they were called here in the ’80s. You’d sneak them in and there was a sense of the illicit to the film. It’s very hard to capture that now because of the internet. So to try to put stuff in it that really is a head fuck is what I want to try to do – to really try and scare people. That’s about as much as I can say. It has an interesting structure. I’m obsessed with structure and time loops. It’s got all that in it!          

THE BANISHING is now streaming on Shudder

William J. Wright
William J. Wright is a professional freelance writer and an active member of the Horror Writers Association. A lifelong lover of the weird and macabre, his work has appeared in many popular publications dedicated to horror and cult film. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife and three sons.