The Banishing (2020) is a stylishly made haunted house story that starts promisingly but ultimately struggles to make much sense.
An atmospheric prologue
The first half of it is the most interesting. A young vicar, Linus (John Heffernan), his wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) move into Morley Hall, a sinister manor house (is there any other kind?), unaware of previous horrors that have occurred within its walls.
Not all is completely harmonious between the vicar and his wife; he is reluctant to be intimate with her and we are aware that some kind of secret lays dormant, soon to be unearthed.
Needless to say, Morley Hall has secrets of its own.
As tensions mount between them, their daughter starts behaving strangely, having started playing with some sinister dolls and talking to apparent thin air.
This is a house with a disturbing past; a house that seems to absorb evil, insinuating its way into the lives of the people who have lived there. It turns husbands and wives against each other, and children against their parents. An atmospheric prologue giving insight into such past terrors prefigures a loose storyline about devout religious faith butting heads with the desires of the flesh and, somewhere amongst it all, the rise of the Third Reich.
Jessica Brown Findlay excels
The main strength of The Banishing (2020) is the performances. Heffernan is excellent, portraying a fairly nondescript man of the cloth (with perfectly combed hair), tasked with bolstering the faith of the dwindling congregation in the local church, alongside maintaining the illusion of normality with his family, where scandal is hidden in plain sight.
Findlay is exceptional as Marianne, a free-spirited woman with a chequered past, playing second fiddle to her husband’s vocation. Her performance is the glue that holds the shaky story together, and Marianne remains the focus as all around her (intentionally or otherwise) starts to unravel.
The Banishing (2020) has a good supporting cast
Amongst the supporting cast is John Lynch as Bishop Malachi, throwing his weight around in a manner more suited to a gangster than a member of the clergy.
Elsewhere, there is Sean Harris as the local spiritualist Harry Price, introduced in a dance sequence accompanied by a 1930s gramophone record playing at varying speeds, perhaps aiming to preempt the off-kilter nature of the story. Both characters are aware of the dark secrets of the house, and are at odds with each other’s opposing beliefs and practices, with the Bishop denouncing Price as a “fraud and a charlatan”.
However, the show is quietly stolen by McKenna-Bruce’s performance as Adelaide, the young daughter who, to start with, is almost imperceptibly influenced by the evils of the house and who is responsible for some of the most unsettling moments of the film.
Haunted House: The Greatest Hits
The previous work of director Christopher Smith has established him as a skilful horror filmmaker, but in the case of The Banishing (2020), he is frustratingly constrained by an underdeveloped screenplay.
Many of the tropes one might expect in a haunted house story are present and correct, but they play out like a collection of familiar ‘greatest hits’ rather than adding anything fresh to the mix.
The camera voyeuristically pursuing characters down dark corridors? Check. The presence of a ghostly apparition in the corner of the frame? Check. A couple of ‘red herring’ jump scares? Check. But the main issue is that all these things occur in isolation, without a convincing reason that links them together.
Descent into madness
The last act ramps up the eeriness, with the central characters descending into madness, which is somewhat reminiscent of The Shining (1980).
Unfortunately, just as the film should be starting to tie its dangling threads together, it loses its footing, perhaps realising it has spent too much of its running time establishing its characters and setting (and a superfluous subplot about Nazis), but ultimately is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
The strong performances carry the weight of the film, with an assured cast who commit to the muddled narrative with aplomb. The characters seem to be aware of how it all ties together, even if the audience is not.
A tale told in a familiar Manor
My overriding feeling about The Banishing (2020) is that as it doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the genre, it is likely to get lost amongst far superior examples of its type. And, like many other haunted house stories that have preceded it, as characters tiptoe cautiously down gloomy corridors or hesitantly make their way down to a darkened cellar armed with only a torch, the horror element is undercut by the pervading thought: “Just. Turn. The. Lights. On.”
IMDb score: 4.5 | Film Forums: 4.5