By Steph Cannon
What happens when you take a traditional haunted house tale and throw in heavy religious undertones, creepy dolls, a vengeful kidnapping spirit, and....Nazis? Well, look no further than Christopher Smith's THE BANISHING. Okay, so the Nazis aren't really an integral part of the story, but more a backdrop to the setting of 1930's England. The film stars Jessica Brown Findlay (of Downton Abbey fame) as Marianne, who has just moved with her Vicar husband Linus (John Heffernan) and young daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) to a countryside estate. Upon their first arrival, the foreboding creepiness of it is apparent. The house itself is based loosely on real-life Borley Rectory, which is claimed to be England's most haunted property. That right there should tell you the main plot point we have all seen in many haunted house movies before: "family moves into big scary house and gets terrorized by threatening ghosts". Fortunately, THE BANISHING does sprinkle in subplots to make it feel fresh and interesting, even if it does take a while to get there. Marianne is a progressive woman for the time period, with a sordid past that is revealed throughout the movie. As we get the pieces of her history, and how it relates back to Adelaide, it's a wonder how she ever became married to the distant, devout Linus. He's SO cold that we never get a sense for his character other than his constant dismissive behavior towards both her and their daughter and his obsessive allegiance to his faith.
There are the standard “things that go bump in the night”, which are heard and felt with much more frequency by Marianne and her daughter. There's that creepy doll with the gouged-out eyes that Adelaide finds, the hooded figures that loom in her room at night, and the mirrored images of themselves that seem to move independently. It's enough for Marianne to seek out the help of an eccentric character named Harry (Sean Harris), who is somewhat of a spiritualist/ghost hunter (it's never fully explained). He serves as one of the anchors for exposition to give us further information on the house itself and how to deal with the ghostly inhabitants. The house, we learn, was built on the land where an ancient monastery once lay; a place where heinous crimes against women were performed in the name of religion. As you can imagine, a few angry spirits are still hanging around to enact their revenge. One, in particular, seeks out Adelaide, and it's up to Marianne to find a way to save her child and rid the place once and for all of the evil the lies within. Where the movie excels is with the cinematography, which provides us with plenty of moody shots to give us chills, while also being subtle enough to make us question if what we saw was just a shadow, or something more insidious. Findlay does an excellent job of toggling between headstrong reformist and desperate mother, which is a stark contrast to Heffernan's admonishing callousness. There is also a decent amount of jump scares to satisfy most horror buffs without going overboard. Each time the movie pushes on the throttle, it pulls back ever so slightly to keep us guessing. While the plot is at times confusing (there's those aforementioned Nazis whom the film never really does much with), it also sits squarely among the ranks of classic ghost stories.
THE BANISHING is streaming exclusively on the Shudder Network.