It starts with the snap of buttons coming undone, and the whisper of fabric brushing bare shoulders: Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay), weary after a day’s journey to her new home with her daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce), has retired to the bedroom and begun slowly undressing, though she needs a hand with the final clasp on her dress. “Would you?” she asks her husband, Linus (John Heffernan), as he walks in on her. He complies in dutiful terror, then turns away as if he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t. Marianne respects his twitchy anxiety, but her disappointment is obvious. Sexual frustration is the price she pays for marrying a vicar. That and all the angry ghosts.
“The Banishing” is a haunted house film, and a Chris Smith film too, which means each of his characters in their own way are helplessly trapped in cycles of torment. But it’s also a film about repression and persecution of desire, both in its present and its past. Linus’ superior, Malachi (John Lynch), has chosen him as the new priest to a rural parish, and given him the run of a forbidding old estate in exchange for his service. What Malachi left out of his sales pitch is that the estate was once held by an order of brutal looney tune monks who administered redemption through ritual torture, and also that their spirits, and the spirits of their victims, might still sorta kinda linger around the place. Some reward. There isn’t even a silver lining to brighten the darkness; it’s all bad.
On the other hand, “The Banishing” is itself quite good, using grim English history as the basis for a macabre bespoke chiller cut to fit Smith’s interests as a filmmaker. Screenwriting trio David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines mine the tale of Borley Rectory, widely regarded as “the most haunted house in England,” for inspiration; along with Marianne, Linus, and Adelaide, their deaf maid, Agnes (Jean St. Clair), murderous hooded figures, and screaming blood-stained phantoms, the film’s estate is a hosting ground for fears of fascism’s rise, wild religious hypocrisy, and critique of outmoded social mores that, frankly, aren’t outmoded enough. Even in 2021 we’re somehow still debating women’s agency over their own bodies. Look how far we haven’t come.
Neither Beton, nor Bogdanovich, nor Lines, nor Smith make much out of these ideas; they’re mostly used as buttressing corroborative details for the film’s central ghost story. This, for the most part, is fine, because nothing sucks the air out of a good ghost story like pretense: “This isn’t about ghosts, actually; it’s about Nazi Germany / smashing the patriarchy / women’s liberation.” “The Banishing” follows through on the latter two themes simply by letting the narrative do the heavy lifting. Invocations of Hitler, on the other hand, go nowhere, and perhaps the Third Reich’s ascent would’ve worked better as window dressing instead of a plot point. Regardless, “The Banishing” functions first as horror and second as social commentary instead of taking the top-down approach, where the commentary comes before the drama.
Marianne gives the most direct expressions of that commentary; she’s often alone or with Adelaide, which can feel lonely when you’re an adult in need of adult interactions. The problem Marianne keeps running into is that most of her adult interactions are with either Linus, a man who fears God almost as much as the shadow of his own erections, or Malachi, who being a bishop of the Christian church is naturally an authoritarian at heart. The only spiritual figure worth trusting is Harry Price (Sean Harris, playing the Ahab character by channeling a little Vincent Price here and a little Christopher Lee there), a man deemed a charlatan by Malachi, which of course means he’s one of the good guys. He knows the truth of the manor, and if he’s on the eccentric side, his intentions are honorable: He means to protect Marianne and Linus, and to save Adelaide from the house’s clutches.
But the house has a strong grip, and functions as a character thanks to the way Smith’s cinematographer, Sarah Cunningham, photographs it. Through her lens, the estate – massive, sprawling, distressed by time and rich with dust – becomes every bit as alive as its original inhabitants are dead. Even an innocent game of “What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?” is pregnant with dread: We see Adelaide tiptoeing behind Marianne, we see Marianne calling out the time, 3 o’clock then 5 o’clock, and before she can call out a third time the camera glides up to Marianne’s back, an invisible menace stalking her unawares. “The Banishing” has monsters aplenty to bedevil her and the audience alike, but filmmaking itself is Smith’s best tool for creating fright. Together, he and Cunningham make the cursed mansion a pervasive and unrelenting antagonist.
That characterization is further rounded out by Smith’s fondness for time loops, parallel narratives, and evil’s roots in historical atrocities; he weaves all three into “The Banishing” with seamless effort, combining the Sisyphean punishment of 2007’s “Triangle” with the dual plotting of “Detour” and the misogynist violence of “Black Death.” It’s a lot to work into one movie, but Smith shrewdly filters each of these motifs into the film using classic haunted house accouterments, like creepy dolls and bewitched mirrors, the latter acting as a portal into the same place but at another time. The past, Smith suggests, is never really the past. Events that happened a century ago echo in the spaces where they transpired. Unless we in the present confront the past, the past will plague us (and this, perhaps, is reason enough to reference Hitler at all).
None of this would matter much if “The Banishing” didn’t grant us the courtesy of scaring the wits out of us, of course. But that only makes the thought put into the film’s structure even more appreciated. We all have our own regrets and sins to reconcile with. “The Banishing” reminds us that sometimes we’re forced to answer for the sins of others, too. [B]