By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Starring Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, Anya McKenna-Bruce, Sean Harris, and John Lynch
Directed by Christopher Smith
Written by David Beton, Ray Bogdanvich, and Dean Lines
Filmmaker Christopher Smith (Creep, Triangle) continues his successful streak of creating engaging and original genre fare with the Shudder original THE BANISHING, a quintessentially English ghost story based loosely on the story of England’s most haunted house. Set in 1938 just prior to Britain’s entry into World War II, THE BANISHING stars Jessica Brown Findlay, best known for her role as Lady Sybil Branson in the wildly popular period drama Downton Abbey, as Marianne Forster, the wife of a clergyman who faces an unspeakable evil when her husband is assigned to Morely Hall, a rectory with a sinister past.
The film opens with Morley Hall’s previous rector, Reverend Hall (Matthew Clarke) brutally murdering his wife before taking his own life. Three years later, Reverend Linus Forster along with his wife Marianne and young daughter Adelaide move into Morley Hall. Summoned by Bishop Malachi, portrayed by veteran actor John Lynch, Linus is tasked with restoring the waning faith of a parish demoralized by the looming war in Europe and haunted by Morley Hall’s rumored evil reputation.
Upon taking up residence in their new home, all’s not well with the Forsters. Linus’ commitment to his faith puts a strain on intimacy with his new wife whom he suspects of infidelity, and their move to Morley Hall dramatically exacerbates his jealousy. The young vicar becomes increasingly cruel in his interactions with wife and begins to drink heavily. Adelaide also seems affected by the house as she angrily rejects Marianne for an apparently imaginary mother figure. After a series of frightening and inexplicable events, Marianne suspects that otherworldly forces are at work and turns to a disgraced and eccentric occultist named Harry Reed (Sean Harris) to unlock Morley Hall’s deadly secrets and save her family. However, she soon learns that her own past is the greatest obstacle in escaping the house’s ancient evil.
As a horror film, THE BANISHING is a decided slow burn, and perhaps too much of one for an audience accustomed to the shock-a-minute thrills of such haunted house movies as The Conjuring. Director Christopher Smith shoots for – and, more often than not – attains the subtle and unnerving atmosphere of the classic English ghost story as realized by the master of the form, author M.R. James. THE BANISHING contains some truly unsettling imagery, much of it centered on mirrors and the perception of time which effectively echoes the dual, but conflicting, nature of its characters and their relationship to the past and present. The film is cheerfully free of CGI excess: relying on practical effects and suggestion for its restrained scares. Nevertheless, Smith is not above resorting to a jump scare or two with varying success.
Director Christopher Smith imbues his film with a sense of social consciousness that has been sorely lacking in the genre in recent years. Smith is unafraid to use horror as a vehicle for delivering commentary on relevant issues. A surprisingly feminist film, THE BANISHING takes unapolgetic aim at the patriarchy while never becoming too heavy-handed in its messaging. The real ghost haunting the film’s subtext, however, is the spirit of fascism. Smith’s use of Neville Chamberlain’s pre-war appeasement of Hitler as a backdrop to the film’s main action gives the film an immediacy that parallels the Western world’s recent political flirtations with nationalism and nativism.
THE BANISHING’s greatest strength is its cast. Jessica Brown Findlay, John Lynch, and especially Sean Harris (whose inspired madness as Harry Reed is a highlight) all turn in nearly flawless performances, as does John Heffernan who is criminally underused in the film. The cast is so good that it underlines an unfortunate thinness of plot and lack of development in the characters and their motivations. Findlay and Harris are incredibly compelling in their roles and it’s disappointing that their stories aren’t more intricately drawn. Clocking in at an economical 99 minutes, THE BANISHING is the rare horror film that would benefit from a longer running time. One wonders what, if anything, was left on the cuttimng room floor.
Not without its flaws, including a flimsiness of story and uneven pacing, THE BANISHING’s atmosphere and stellar cast make it a welcome entry in the well-worn haunted house subgenre.
THE BANISHING is now streaming on Shudder.