“Essentially, the film finds itself inspired by prestige TV but takes the worst elements and results in something that doesn’t challenge as much as it could.”
The Banishing is a period horror-drama about ghosts, and the genre-typical nature of that does not put you in an optimistic frame of mind as a viewer. There’ve been numerous examples of major ghost stories on the screen in recent years, most notably the two series of Netflix’s The Haunting anthology show, as well as massively popular big screen releases such as The Conjuring. It seems, then, like an uphill struggle to create a work that doesn’t follow the same format as its contemporaries. In this case there is a meaningful story that warrants the existence of yet another take on the haunted house, but it’s behind a poorly constructed facade.
Plotting is essential for what should be the slow burn telling of a ghost story, and there’s been enough effort to try and create something compelling. It is, unfortunately, a bit of a slow start for this 1930s-set tale as a family moves into a house that was witness to a supernatural-inspired suicide, and the leads simply find themselves unsettled by the atmosphere and in constant argument. However, with patience as a viewer, it becomes clear that there are more insidious events happening within the house, as well as a number of different groups with their own interests in the unusual goings on.
It should already be clear that the film takes some time to become worth watching, and any doubt around whether it’s worth persisting on is not aided by the low budget. For one, it’s simply aesthetically dull: the film lacks colour and any real craft to its shots, with the score similarly being generic and unengaging. Everything borders on being amateurish throughout, the biggest contributor being the ugly and overly intimate handheld camera. Essentially, the film finds itself inspired by prestige TV but takes the worst elements and results in something that doesn’t challenge as much as it could.
The lack of a strong vision and craft is evident in the performances too, which never excel due to the weak characterisation. Everyone feels like an archetype, with stereotypes such as the sullen and devout vicar (John Heffernan), the misunderstood seeker of the supernatural (Sean Harris), and a protagonist (Jessica Brown Findlay) who has some pep but very little in terms of actual personality. Indeed, with the general lack of polish there’s an unwelcome and unintentional campiness that harms the possibility of connecting with the story. There are some great actors in this, but it is, unfortunately, not really an actors’ film. This is a major flaw for a work that puts drama at its centre.
But it manages to exceed the expectations it sets through most of its aspects by having an involving pace. When the plot finally starts moving, it unwinds with enough well-considered mystery that you do want to see where it will all go, there being a multitude of perils that make this seem more than a bloodless, old school haunted house tale. Horror fans who are looking for significant scares won’t find them here; a lack of fear caused by the wider-ranging flaws that limit the film’s potential at large. However, if you’re willing to accept the failure of immersing you in the terror of the situation, you’ll find an almost bewildering competency with the drama itself.
Strong themes are what propel the plot and push it to the heights — comparative to the film’s lows — that it reaches. The start does provide a negative and largely false impression in the dynamic between our spirited lead and her pious vicar husband, an approach which feels tropey and archaic. There’s much more depth as the story progresses, with World War II not simply some scene-setting or atmosphere-creating backdrop to a ghost story, but a crucial part of the themes that reveal themselves ever more clearly throughout. It’s a story about confronting the wrongs of past and present and where we choose to situate ourselves in that battle, and ultimately feels like a modern and relevant work by its end.
There’s enough to enjoy in this film once you get past the obvious weaknesses. It has genuine intellectual merit and poses a challenge to viewers that it doesn’t look likely to at the start and, indeed, the crude presentation, evoking an undercooked BBC drama, which leaves you often wondering whether the narrative will falter. It’s a surprising success because of feeling so often on the brink of collapsing into cliché or incompetence, and as such, the satisfaction at the film’s end cannot be seen as unqualified. There’s enough here worth watching that it can be recommended, though only as a Sunday morning movie where low expectations be reasonably rewarded.
Dir: Christopher Smith
Prod: Maya Ansellem
Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, John Lynch, Sean Harris
Release Date: 2021
Available on: Shudder
Header image courtesy of Shudder