Inspired by what is colloquially known as “the most haunted house in England,” The Banishing is oddly less interested in exploring the recorded paranormal activity within the walls of England’s Borley Rectory than it is crafting a long-winded mythos meant to speak for our uncertain times. As opposed to relishing in the eerie yet widely disputed history of the creepy old house (re-dubbed the Morley Rectory), the film steeps itself in awkwardly placed commentary on fascism and feminism, effectively diminishing any ambiance invoked through the otherwise alluring 1930s set dressing.
On the precipice of World War II, newlyweds Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and vicar Linus Forster (John Heffernan) find themselves moving into the Morey Rectory, a sprawling manor that houses disturbing secrets regarding its previous tenants’ demise. Marianne’s young daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) is also in tow, quickly making herself at home with some dust-covered antique dolls she finds while rummaging through a dresser. Marianne experiences disturbing visions from the get-go, while skeptic Linus refuses to entertain her claims. When Adelaide appears to vanish out of thin air, Marianne enlists the help of paranormal researcher Harry Reed (Sean Harris), despite warnings from alleged Nazi-sympathizer Bishop Malachi (John Lynch) to avoid Reed at all costs. What ensues is a cliché-riddled tale of ghostly unrest that quickly loses momentum as it languishes in excess exposition.
The Banishing seems entirely uninterested in depicting (or even sensationalizing) the real-life terrors that were purported to occur in the rectory, with writers David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich and Dean Lines opting to portray characters and reconstrue events as they see fit. Unfortunately, this leads to plot points and characterizations that feel incongruous with the setting, evident in one scene in which Marianne is scolded by Malachi for having conceived her daughter out of wedlock and retorts with what can only be described as a feminist clapback. If the writers really wanted to include a juicy sin that challenges Marianne’s piousness, they needn’t have looked further than the confession of real-life Marianne Foyster that she faked much of the poltergeist activity in the house in order to cover up the bumps in the night caused by her extramarital affair.
Of course, most films based on first-hand accounts of haunted houses are heavily altered if not out-right fabricated, perhaps none more frequently than those which recount the cases of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, among them Amityville Horror and The Conjuring franchise. Where the aforementioned films find that trimming down on biographical anecdotes means there is more room for staging scares, The Banishing becomes bogged down by an overreliance on fleshing out moody details that do little to heighten the horrifying stakes. While the unsettling encroachment of fascism in Britain serves as an interesting metaphor to the invasion of malevolent forces in one’s own home, it is far too half-baked to heighten the anxious tension that the film never quite manifests.
While Findlay’s stunning ‘30s-inspired wardrobe is often enchanting, there is little else working to the film’s advantage. Though horror has long been a valuable conduit for reflecting on cultural taboos, fears and injustices, lazily inserting extraneous quips concerning Nazism and misogyny into the script says far less than effective terror-inducing imagery could. Through milking a narrative that ostensibly serves to speak to a larger conversation about power and prejudice, The Banishing slogs through inconsequential discourse as opposed to communicating its critique through appropriately paced instances of (perhaps not so) paranormal activity.
Director: Christopher Smith
Writers: David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, Dean Lines
Stars: Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, John Lynch, Sean Harris, Anya McKenna-Bruce
Release Date: April 15, 2021 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.