Rarely does it ever occur, but every now and then, my very public love of horror and my more privately held love of period dramas overlap, and these slower, quieter works of eerie horror almost always speak to me in a way no other genre can.
The Banishing caught my eye for a few reasons. First being that it is a prestige period drama, with the opulence and serious tone, packed into a horror story, but also because I am a big fan of the director of the film, Christopher Smith. His work with Black Death, Severance, and Creep all shine in their own unique ways as different facets of British horror, but it was his 2009 film Triangle that really caught my attention. Despite its ambitious but low-budget nature, the way in which Smith utilized actress Melissa George and the clever utilization of the time loop mechanic into a horror film was absolutely ravishing. Those fond memories of watching it brought me to The Banishing with record speed.
The Banishing follows a young reverend, Linus (John Heffernan), moving into a new home with his wife, Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay), and daughter, Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce), after taking up a position as reverend of a lowly parish. Despite this less-than-ideal position, the home they’re provided is a cavernous, grand estate more than befitting of three people living within it. As time progresses, each resident of the home begins to realize both through their own experiences and by account of the local population, that the home holds a much darker and storied history that threatens the safety of the young family.
I’m sure you’re thinking “I feel like I’ve seen this type of haunted house movie before” and that assumption would be absolutely correct. Haunted house films can typically follow a very rigid basic structure and still work as long as the actual terror the story builds to is unique and engaging (think of Mike Flanagan’s work, all very familiar baselines, but very unique payoffs in the way he frames each story). The issue at the center of The Banishing is that you have seen this horror film before, in many better instances, and there isn’t much outside of the film’s polished style and competent performances that does much to convince you that you shouldn’t just be watching those films instead.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a substantial amount of style in the film, but good production values do not a period horror movie make. However, it would be tawdry to completely undercut the film’s values for that reason. The production design by Chris Richmond is lush, but grounded in a grey, neutral-toned hell that makes the house and environments surrounding it feel entirely constricting even in its grandeur. Add on Lance Milligan’s lovely and understated costume design befitting of any major period production, and you have enough on the surface to please anyone just here for a costume drama, and that’s genuinely enough for quite a few people.
The performances are also quite engaging when the film allows them to be, with Brown Findlay unsurprisingly stealing the film as her character slowly grows more tormented by the house’s continuous degradation of her grasp on reality. There’s a statuesque presence to Brown Findlay not just in stature, but in the way her characters carry themselves with a strong, quiet confidence that she injects so uniquely into them. It’s a shame the film surrounding her doesn’t appreciate how interesting she can be as an actress, but even with the relatively paltry substance to the character, she manages to pull out something quite impressive.
The biggest element I take umbrage with isn’t that The Banishing is slow, because slow can be utilized amazingly in the right story, but in that it doesn’t lead to anything that feels remotely satisfying come its final act. The secrets unveiled about the house are derivative and not particularly scary, the character arcs that lead to the film’s very abrupt ending don’t feel like they evolved into anything transformative or engaging, and, to top it all off, despite all of the wonderful production values that permeate the film’s visuals, there’s hardly any atmosphere created within the film. Without any real terror to be found, there’s nothing much tethering audiences and giving them reason to care about anything going on, which is a real shame considering the material they’re working with. When everything is so set up to fall into place, flubbing it feels so much more consequential than if the film had nothing to work with in the first place.
I felt a lot of similar vibes between The Banishing and Lenny Abrahamson’s 2018 The Little Stranger, but the difference was that despite a similarly dry approach to period horror, The Little Stranger found a way to both find a fitting, if ambiguous, conclusion to the film, but also was able to build a palpable, tense atmosphere with both its narrative and similarly lush set pieces. The Banishing simply feels like an imitation of a much more fleshed out, frightening, and ultimately more engaging ghost story. Something is lost in translation in that imitation, leaving viewers with a bunch of delicious ingredients that just refuse to mix together properly.
Available on Shudder April 15th, 2021.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.