Ellis Reed reviews The Banishing, which recently premiered at FrightFest...
One of the best things to come out of the October FrightFest is the overdue return of Bristol auteur Chris Smith, who popped up on Zoom to introduce a comeback feature called The Banishing.
He’s not been idle since he last appeared at the festival. He directed a Christmas comedy called Get Santa, an action-thriller, Detour, and multiple TV shows. As horror fans, we admire him for the solid run of films he wrote and directed before that: Creep (2004), Severance (2006), Triangle (2009) and Black Death (2010). The good news is, he seems to be back in a big way, and The Banishing isn’t the only treat he has up his sleeve for us (although it’s a bit of a detour because he isn’t directing his own script this time).
The story was inspired by the legend of Borley Rectory, which was said to be the most haunted house in England. Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) is the newly-wed wife of a nervous vicar (John Heffernan). As a couple, the two of them are, to put it mildly, a bit different. She already has a daughter from a past liaison, while he panics and checks the Bible when she wants to consummate the marriage. At the start of the film, they move to a grand but creaky rectory, which we know—thanks to an effective prologue—was home to a gruesome murder-suicide three years earlier.
The Banishing is a well-made feature with a clear demographic, so the target audience should lap it up. It’s more conventional than Smith’s other horror films, and a lot of the run-time could be described as familiar food cooked well. There’s the young family moving to a new home; the child with an “imaginary friend”; shadowy figures flitting in the foreground; creepy dolls that no one would ever play with; and even a set-piece based on an indoor game (in this case, they’re playing a round of “What’s the time, Mister Wolf?”—although it seems to be a regional variant where the wolf can turn around, even when it’s not dinner-time!). The plot includes restless wronged spirits and even a soupçon of Nazi occultism. Some of the strands are more developed than others, but I won’t say which for the sake of spoilers. I will say that, if you’re the kind of horror fan who thinks The Conjuring and Insidious are a bit daft or raise more questions than offer answers, you might feel the same about The Banishing, because it’s very much part of that subgenre.
However, for those of us who do like this sort of thing—including yours truly—several things elevate The Banishing over most of its peers. The period setting is beautifully executed and the performances are strong throughout. The portrayal of real-life investigator Harry Price might be divisive for some, but there’s no doubt it makes for effective cinema. Played by Sean Harris, he becomes an esoteric wide-boy on the cusp of physical, mental and financial ruin. When Marianne asks him who he is, the response she gets is a clear highlight of the film, both in terms of writing and acting. On paper, he discharges the same function as Elise from the Insidious franchise, but his presence is far from reassuring—and when Marianne returns to him for help, it feels like an act of genuine desperation, rather than a triumph for common sense. It’s a great piece of work from Sean Harris, who brims throughout with seedy intensity. I’d love to see him reprise the character in future movies, perhaps with his own demons coming to the fore.
In terms of frights, there are a couple of jump-scares – one of which I found very effective – and some interesting moments that play with time, to the extent where characters bump into themselves. This is bound to remind horror fans (as it did me) of The Triangle, but the similarity is quite superficial. The scenes in question form a bewildering texture, rather than resolving into clear loops of cause-and-effect. It certainly isn’t as developed as (for instance) the last act of Insidious 2, which used time-travel as a key plot point—but it’s a welcome addition to The Banishing because the creepiest moments come when characters share screen-time with their own selves.
So, to the verdict. As a narrative, the film is far more interesting than the non-fiction that inspired it. In real life, Marianne faked ‘bumps in the night’ to cover her affair with the lodger, and Price was accused of filling his pockets with pebbles, so he could throw them at people and say the ghost did it. It’s also more compelling than the majority of haunted house films that came to market while the director was away. I don’t think the story is as strong or original as his own scripts, necessarily, but it’s good enough for the purpose of the film, and the writers do commendable work with character and dialogue. If Smith’s comeback means more films of this quality, then the British horror scene will be all the richer for it – I’m excited to see where he takes us next.
Watch the trailer for The Banishing
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