A solid ghost story, with some great performances, Christopher Smith’s The Banishing gets so close to being a tremendous British haunted horror. Yet, the film begins to fizzle out all too soon in a disappointing final act by overcomplicating itself. If you enjoy period gothic style horror, then this is still worth 100 minutes of your time.
A young reverend Linus (John Heffernan) and his wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) move into a manor with a horrifying secret in 1930s England. When a vengeful spirit haunts the little girl and threatens to tear the family apart, the reverend and his wife are forced to confront their beliefs. They must turn to black magic by seeking a famous Occultist (Sean Harris) or risk losing their daughter.
Jump scares are few and far between here in The Banishing; instead of in their place is a continual feeling of dread as the creepiness is firmly set into the disjointed family. Smith wisely takes his time with letting us get to know all of the leading players and the goings-on inside the house before anything significant happens. It is a simple thing, but one that is wholly ignored too often. By allowing the characters to take centre stage for over 30 minutes without too much horror happening, we get to settle, even when the dread and tension has already started.
Linus’ arc is interesting as he is a vicar who was dragged into this situation and given a position that he has no right to have and is made to know that is the fact by his superior. He has misgivings about his new wife, and doubts rage through him as he tries to find other avenues to distract him, yet the ghosts within are present to twist him to their goals.
Whereas with Marianne, we have a woman who has been trying to battle the patriarchal world in which she lives and has obviously lived a difficult life because of this. She merely wants to start anew with her husband and her daughter. Marianne just wants to be happy, and as expected, the house tries its best to deny her. As the house attempts to take hold of Adelaide and rid anyone who is in their way, we take on an involved ghost story that works marvellously.
Brown-Findlay is particularly strong here as she carries the film as the heart of the piece. She isn’t a bombastic strong woman nor someone who hides away in fear as is stereotypical with ghost/haunted house pictures. Brown-Hindlay’s performance as Marianne creeps up on you as she is distant at the beginning and has certain beliefs that she is resolute on; a scene with the Bishop shows that. But she is also sensitive to the growing distance with Adelaide. By combining both tropes of a lead, we have a fully fleshed character who we believe in, which is essential if a story like this is to succeed.
Sean Harris is eating all the scenery as he is known to do and does a terrific job at it. His performance as Harry Price is equally as convincing as Brown-Findlay’s. Still, he is allowed to stretch his artistic limbs by being as charismatic as possible and also gets all the best lines and is a character (and actor) who you want to be providing the standard exposition. With how the film ends, it would appear as if his story isn’t over with the added sub-plot, so it will be interesting (though unlikely) if that is carried forward. Even with Harris accentuated performance, he, Brown-Findlay and Heffernan have to be believable for the audience to buy it and become enraptured. Happily, each has been cast perfectly for their roles, and they really help deliver a good film.
Technically this is a very accomplished film with Smith ably using simple tricks to get to the audience. As mentioned in some scenes, we are expecting the jump scare, yet it doesn’t come and instead, the use of foreboding is rife. By focusing on the characters thinking they are losing their minds as they witness multiple versions of themselves or others, we are left to be as disorientated as they are and that works wonders for The Banishing. By having small moments spread well throughout the film, we can try and figure out what is happening.
Yet for all of the great work done with setting up this story and the strong performances throughout the ensemble, The Banishing falters by not really having anything stand out enough to make it as memorable as it deserves to be. For all of that good is wasted in a slightly lacklustre final act. We are invested in this tale, and Smith can’t get his film across the finish line, which is such a shame. We have a film that seemingly tries to add too many subplots together without giving the audience clear reasons why they are there and leave us having to guess.
While the film is paced well and we get a lot of time with our main cast, the plot appears to lose itself with that additional subplot and never highlights is enough to make it worthwhile. It is stuck in either the film being better expanding on it further with additional running time or cutting it completely. By simply trying to do too much, we lose what we had with Marianne in what should be an intimate story. In fact, The Banishing works best when it tries to be intimate. We may have seen a mother fighting for her daughter in a haunted house before in cinema, but the set up wins you over. Why it was decided to go so big with a simple story is confusing and needless.
The Banishing is still a very watchable and enjoyable haunted tale, yet you will be left wondering what kind of film it could have been if it just had a bit more oomph to it. Regardless this is a well-told tale that brings the sense of dread right from the opening scene.
The Banishing is released on Shudder on Thursday, April 15th.
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