British horror stalwart Christopher Smith returns to the genre that made his name with this classy-looking, but ultimately unspectacular haunted house chiller. The film, which opened to reasonable responses at last year’s virtual FrightFest, stars Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton’s Lady Sybil) as Marianne, a vicar’s wife with a messy past, moving with her daughter into a typically spooky old house in the Reverend Linus’s (John Hefferman) new parish. It’s 1938 and Marianne is not the only one with some skeletons in her closet (or possibly basement), and as daughter Adelaide withdraws into a world of creepy old dolls and imaginary friends, her mother starts to notice something very odd happening with the mirror in the hall. The backdrop to all of this is the rise of fascism in Europe and the looming of the second World War, with Marianne’s disgust at the former clashing with her husband’s opposition to the latter; giving a moral subtext to the whole thing.
Brown Findlay is great at capturing Marianne’s respectable-vicar’s-wife restraint as it butts heads with her innately passionate nature. She manages to ground a film that might otherwise fly off in all sorts of directions as the screw turns and her castmates start to chew great gobfuls of scenery with abandon. Sean Harris is suitably unhinged as the local weirdo, fulfilling the traditional don’t-go-near-the-castle role often allotted to grubby peasants in the better sort of Hammer films, while UK TV drama stalwart John Lynch gets to play hammy menace as the definitely-not-shifty-at-all-honest-guv Bishop Malachi.
Everyone seems to be having oodles of fun making a proper, old fashioned British period chiller. It’s The Turning of the Screw via The Woman In Black, The Haunting of Hill House and one of the creepier episodes of classic Doctor Who, and it’s enjoyable enough in a campfire ghost-story sort of way. Ultimately, alas, there isn’t much here to distinguish it from dozens of classier or fresher takes on the genre echoing down the years. Well constructed and well-performed, sure, but once it’s done, The Banishing will melt quicker than an abandoned Solero on a sunny day, merging with a dozen other creepy-old-house stories with generic titles into one big meta-tale, probably called ‘The Spookening’. Smith’s jump scares and evocative gothic imagery do a solid enough job, but won’t be bothering you at 3am on future dark and stormy nights.
Maddeningly, there are more interesting ideas floating like a grey lady in the background here, just waiting to be noticed. The question of Appeasement – a fascinating movement in the late 30s in which large chunks of British society opposed another war with Germany – lingers behind the story (at one point the film even features a clip from Lloyd George’s famous “peace in our time” speech) but never coalesces into the tangible subplot it deserves. It’s a shame – it’s the most interesting thing in the screenplay, and though it informs our characters it doesn’t impact their story nearly enough. Likewise, there is a subtle and faintly queasy playing with time and visual perspective here that are left to unsettle the viewer but are never explored; shadows of a better, scarier and more memorable film.