Written by David Beton, Ray Lines & Dean Bogdanovich
Directed by Christopher Smith
Starring: Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, Anya McKenna-Bruce, Sean Harris, and John Lynch
[All images courtesy West End Films]
By Ann Laabs
Set in late 1930’s Britain, a nation facing the looming shadow of Hitler’s ever-expanding Reich while still haunted by the legacy of WWI, THE BANISHING begins under literal and metaphorical clouds. A young Anglican priest, accompanied by his new wife and stepdaughter, begins his first parish assignment in a remote English village. Linus Forster (John Heffernan) doesn’t ask Bishop Malachi (John Lynch) how — or why — an inexperienced cleric such as himself landed such a plum promotion. The parish will be a challenge. Since the abrupt disappearance of the previous minister and his wife, it has fallen on hard times and empty pews. But Linus’ new post comes complete with a prestigious home called Morley Rectory and with a chance to make his reputation in the Church of England.
While Bishop Malachi lurks about, verbally tussling with local disgraced WWI vet/paranormal researcher Jack Reed (Sean Harris), Linus, Marianne (Jessica Brown-Findlay), and young Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) settle in at Morley Rectory. They soon learn that they are not alone in this house — and that every opportunity comes with a price.
Any movie set in a fictionalized version of Borley Rectory, “the most haunted house in England,” is cinematic catnip for me. My expectations and standards for reviewing haunted house movies are basic. Does this movie give me the immersive experience promised by the tropes and clichés of the ghost story genre? Does this movie take the Sinister Housekeeper and Blank-eyed Dolls and mix them up with original ideas and themes? Is the result a viewing experience that’s both familiar and new? Even if the movie doesn’t work for me, these individual ingredients of the traditional ghost story can work in isolation. Each creaking door and amorphous shadow can at least provide an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. Thankfully, most of the elements in THE BANISHING become more just hoary overused cliches. The haunted mirrors, creaking stairs, and dungeon-like basements become more than cheap props. These elements morph into integral parts of the story, characters with important parts to play.
And a chance to virtually explore a haunted house? The wannabe ghost hunter/urban explorer in me can’t turn THAT down. A ghost story, whether on-screen or the page, gives me a chance to safely experience decaying, dangerous, and possibly ghost-ridden environments that, in real life, I’d avoid at all costs. Wander through the decrepit halls of Danvers Asylum in SESSION 9 (2000), or explore the ruined city of Pripyat with the luckless tourists of CHERNOBYL DIARIES (2012)? Sign me up! Through these movies, I simultaneously experience the thrills of fear and exploration from the comfort of my living room.
Director Christopher Smith, has, by my movie-going experience, directed one pretty good period piece with supernatural elements (BLACK DEATH, 2010), one wickedly funny workplace horror (SEVERANCE, 2006), and one flat-out masterpiece of a nightmarish surreal time-loop tale (TRIANGLE, 2009). Despite one irritating, unnecessary plot thread and a bit of awkward insertion of Contemporary Political Themes, the animate — and inanimate — characters in THE BANISHING mesh together to create a satisfyingly haunting whole.
From here on in, I will be discussing THE BANISHING in detail, including important plot points and potential “spoilers”.
In THE BANISHING, three plot threads weave through the story. First is the story of Linus, Marianne, and Adelaide. Their tense family dynamics and underlying conflicts between them entwine with the second element, that of their new home of Morley Rectory, and the third element of Bishop Malachi’s machinations. While these first two elements push, pull, and ultimately work together to create compelling moments of fear and an intimate human story, I’m afraid that in THE BANISHING, two’s company and three’s a crowd. That third plot strand, concerning Bishop Malachi’s sinister German connections and a certain mystical whatchamacallit relic located in Morley Rectory, muddles up the story and distracts from the human — and ghostly — elements that make the story involving and watchable.
The compelling aspect in THE BANISHING is Linus, Marianne, and their marriage. Their struggle to survive with the lives — and sanity — intact held my interest. As part of that family story, THE BANISHING includes a small detail that many haunted house movies don’t bother to address; providing a legitimate reason this family can’t leave the Rectory. This posting is a chance for Linus to succeed — or fail — as a cleric. His employment and prospects depend on success at this parish. Their future as a family depends on his success.
The conflict between Linus and Marianne provides ripe pickings for both Morley Rectory’s and Bishop Malachi’s malignant influence. The more we learn of this fragile family’s history, and how far back Malachi’s influence over their lives goes, the more we invest in their plight. Linus’ hang-ups about sex, Marianne’s guilt over losing custody of her daughter Adelaide after the child’s birth, Linus’ tentative attempts to be a good stepfather to Adelaide, Adelaide’s resentment of her mother’s abandonment — all bounce off each other and the cold walls of the Rectory. As these threads weave together, their survival became my primary concern, not the resolution of an ancillary plot point about mystical Nazi relic-hunting.
“I placed you here … God returned your daughter to you. God can also take her.” Such menacing words illustrate why Brother Malachi would’ve been a more complex and stronger villain if he was acting on his own, using this vulnerable family for his own malign purposes. Making Malachi a lackey for shadowy Nazi relic hunter diminishes his character. And while his manipulations of this family are fascinating, we don’t learn enough about them. Why has Malachi worked so long and hard to get this family, and Marianne specifically, living in Morley Rectory? Why is Marianne the key to fulfilling his plans? While these questions weren’t answered to my satisfaction, at least Adelaide’s utility to Malachi is better illustrated through her connection to the tormented spirits in the Rectory. I understood why the ghosts in this house want Adelaide far better than why Malachi’s German associates want relics associated with the Rectory’s reputed ghosts.
Literally or figuratively, every character in THE BANISHING is haunted. By their history, by their own choices — or the choices made for them, by past and future world wars. Linus, Marianne, and Adelaide are each haunted by their pasts, while a part of WWI veteran Jack Reed still lies in the trenches with his dead comrades in arms. For all his power, Bishop Malachi is a servant to the nefarious goals of his Order and his lust for control.
While not as annoying as the Nazi relic subplot, the attempts to make Marianne relatable to modern viewers don’t always work. Depending on the viewers, Marianne’s proclamations about the Spanish Civil War and the unnecessary luxury of Morley Rectory wobble between the classic TV Tropes “Anvilicious” and “Some Anvils Need to be Dropped”. Her condescending lecturing of the spectral monks in THE BANISHING’S finale comes across as preachy and didactic instead of inspiring. Even Linus gets in on the act, quoting Edmund Burke’s the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing as a sermon finale.
Even with the Nazi Mystical Relic subplot mucking up the works, THE BANISHING is an effective, involving ghost story. THE BANISHING isn’t in the same select club with such ghost story classics as THE AWAKENING (2012, Dir. Nick Murphy), THE INNOCENTS (1961, Dir. Jack Clayton) and THE CHANGELING (1980, Dir. Peter Medak), but at least it’s in the same ballpark.
There are two aspects of THE BANISHING I’d like to highlight individually: the exquisite location of Morley Rectory and the film’s depiction of religion and faith.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
“You’ll often hear the phrase ‘location, location, location’, and in horror, it’s just as important. Without somewhere for your story to take place, it’s still just an idea. Of course, horror is very closely allied with one of the most famous settings of all, the haunted house. In the case of these stories, the space itself IS the story.”
I’m not sure how closely (if at all) the fictional Morley Rectory resembles the real-life Borley Rectory. Known, with a hearty helping of flimflam and exaggeration, as noted above as “the most haunted house in England”, Borley has always seemed to me like a history-soaked version of the US of A’s blood-soaked Amityville Horror. For a ghost story fan, newbie haunted houses in America just can’t match the centuries of dark deeds steadily accretion into the very walls of British haunted houses. While a US haunt may date back 150 or maybe 200 years, the fictional Morley Rectory rests on top of half a century of calcified murder, torture, and mutilation that’s seeped into its very walls.
THANK YOU to Director of Photography Sarah Cunningham, Editor Richard Smither, Production Designer Chris Richmond, Assistant Art Director Stephen Smith, Set Decorator Dominic Smithers, Sound Designer Ben Baird, Props Master Gary Bustard, and VFX House XUMEDIA VISUAL EFFECTS (and anyone else I inadvertently omitted), for creating a masterful, immersive haunted house for me to safely explore. A line from MAREBITO (2004) sums up the dueling emotions that every horror fan experiences while watching a scary movie: “Fear of the unknown compels me to open this door.” I felt compelled to follow Linus, Marianne, and Adelaide down each dark hall while simultaneously fearing what might loom from the shadows. As I explored the Rectory with this luckless family, I could feel clammy mold seeping from the walls and see the dust of centuries floating in the air. I wondered if the eyes in every portrait would follow Linus or Marianne. Despite myself, I couldn’t help looking in every dark corner of the screen, hoping to be terrified.
To steal a phrase from the New Rockstars YouTube channel, the “scene geography” of THE BANISHING is spot on. I always knew where I was in the house, the village, or the surrounding countryside. I understood where events are occurring, even if I wasn’t sure when, thanks to a fluid, elliptical storytelling style that plays with our sense of time: what we see and hear may not be happening simultaneously.
RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY
I was pleasantly surprised with how sincerely THE BANISHING portrays both organized religion and individual faith. Linus, Marianne, and Jack Reed all have their individual spiritual lives, which the movie respects. THE BANISHING is too well-written to settle for the “The Church/Organized Religion is BAD” cliché. While Linus will never win any awards for public speaking, he genuinely wants to serve God. The church services and graveside liturgies in THE BANISHING are presented sincerely. Jack Reed labels the nefarious practices of the medieval monks of the Rectory as “a perversion of the Christian religion”, and Bishop Malachi’s leadership is presented as an aberration, corrupted by his ambition.
The real-life release date of THE BANISHING to UK theaters, VOD, and Shudder is Monday, March 29th, 2021 (just before Good Friday, April 2nd, and Easter, April 4). In the film, the final stretch of the plot kicks into gear after a Good Friday Tenebrae service. Since the Holy Week Tenebrae service featured in THE BANISHING highlights a key theme of the film, the fight against literal and figurative darkness, it’s worth quoting the United Methodist Conference.org on the subject.
“Tenebrae” is the Latin word meaning “darkness.” The service of Tenebrae as practiced in most Protestant Churches is an adaptation of medieval Roman Catholic practices for each of the days of Holy Week dating back to the ninth century. In Protestant use, this is a single service typically held at night on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday … After the fifteenth reading, which confirms that Jesus had died on the cross, the last of the 15 lit candles may be extinguished or taken away, and a loud sound may be made to indicate the effect of the death of Jesus on the universe. The final story of the burial is read in near darkness, with the only light being used by the reader.”
What is a Tenebrae service? | The United Methodist Church
"Tenebrae" is the Latin word meaning "darkness." The service of Tenebrae as practiced in most Protestant Churches is an…
If you’d like to read more (and who doesn’t?), here are some great resources on both the connection between WWI and the birth of the modern horror, Borley Abbey, and THE BANISHING’s filming location of Broughton Hall.
Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror (2019) by W. Scott Poole https://www.counterpointpress.com/dd-product/wasteland/
The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (1993) by David J. Skal http://www.monstershow.net/the_monster_show__br_a_cultural_history_of_horror_3244.htm
Thank You to Brian Eggert of Deep Focus Review for guidance and beta-reading.