GOD BLESS THIS MESS
The Banishing (15)
Review: RJ Bland
If we are to look back at the best British horror directors of the 21st century then Christopher Smith is a name that firmly belongs within that particular gang. Neil Marshall may get most props for The Descent, perhaps the best British horror film of the last twenty years but it's fair to say that he's never been able to reach those heights again. Smith on the other hand made a clutch of very good and very different genre features in the early to mid noughties. His brutal horror-comedy Severance (2006) is somewhat underrated (he even manages to make Danny Dyer seem mildly bearable) and in Creep (2004) he gave us another reason to be terrified of the London underground. The mind-bending Triangle (2009) was also a success too. His last genre feature was over ten years ago, with Black Death (2010), which was a bit bleak (obvs) but still a finely crafted film. Since then, Smith has made a couple of solid non-genre features but his return to horror with period horror The Banishing is nevertheless a welcome one.
Set in gloomy 1930s England, a reverend moves to a new town after he is posted there to replace the previous guy, who has mysteriously gone missing (along with his entire family). His wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her daughter Adelaide soon join him in the large, creepy looking house where the rev has been tasked with renewing the faith of the locals, which has waned in recent years. Upping church attendance takes a bit of a backseat though when weird stuff begins happening at home. Eerie voices, visions of weird shrouded figures, odd mirror based phenomenon – there's no shortage of stuff to get freaked out about. And when Adelaide's behaviour starts becoming increasingly odd, Marianne is compelled to dig up the history of their new abode and makes some rather sinister discoveries...
The haunted house sub-genre is one with a sliding scale of action. The Haunting of Bly Manor contains relatively few chills (much to the annoyance of many) whilst at the other end of the spectrum, something like The Conjuring 2 is action-packed and bombastic. The Banishing is a film that whilst a little bit more low-key than the latter, unfortunately also tries the same tactic of stuffing in a few too many sub-plots and horror tropes. The result is a feature that never feels boring, but that often feels too cluttered and at times, borderline incoherent.
That's not to say there isn't some well worked horror in here. There are several really effective set pieces and one particularly good (well earned) jump scare. The house is creepy, there's lots of ominous religious iconography and a growing sense of paranoia throughout. We've seen a lot of this kind of thing before but Smith is rather adept at eeking out a good deal of suspense. Jessica Findlay Brown, best known to viewers from her turn in Downton Abbey, is rather mesmerising in the lead role and her portrayal of a women in conflict with not just the ghosts inside her house but with her own fragile mind (as well as an arse of a husband) means that we do ultimately care when things start to go pear shaped.
However, there's just too much going on to ever keep a firm grip on proceedings. You expect things to spiral out of control for the central protagonist of films like this but it's actually the audience who are left rather flummoxed by the time the end credits roll. In insisting on so many story threads, the film lacks a certain level of cohesion and ends up feeling rather disjointed. A particular subplot that feels almost like it's been tacked on actually ends up being quite significant, although I'd be lying if I told you how it fits in with everything else. There's a theatricality to The Banishing too that doesn't quite work as well. This is encapsulated perfectly in the performance of Sean Harris, whose character feels a bit too caricature even for a film as bonkers as this. At times he sounds like he's quoting Macbeth. Harris does it all with the weird intensity that you'd expect but he's a bit too Basil Exposition and almost feels as if he belongs in a different film.
It's all quite frustrating because there are elements of an interesting and scary film hidden within The Banishing. It's nearly a good movie. But when the flaws are rooted deep within the script, even charismatic central performances and competent direction can't elevate it above run-of-the-mill status.