The Banishing (UK, 2020)
I’ve been a fan of Christopher Smith since seeing Creep (not to be confused with the American film of the same name) almost 20 years ago. Subsequent works like Severance, Triangle and Black Death cemented him in my mind as a filmmaker to look out for.
This is why I was surprised to learn that I’d completely overlooked his latest horror film for three years. The reviews I saw online were less than kind, but I often find myself disagreeing with the general consensus. So how does The Banishing compare to the rest of Smith’s work?
The Banishing is currently available on Shudder in the UK.
We open with the bloody murder/suicide of a vicar and his wife, in a grand but spooky old house in rural England. This is quickly covered up by the vicar’s bishop, who is clearly up to no good.
A few years later, in the run up to World War II, a new vicar moves into the rectory, along with his wife and their young daughter. As the film goes on, we learn that their family relationship is a writhing mass of secrets, resentments and general dysfunction, all repressed in a very English manner. This proves fertile psychological ground for the spirits haunting the house, who have clearly read The Shining.
This haunting has it all, from robed monks, to creepy dolls, to mirrors that act as portals to the spirit dimension. Or maybe to the past. Well, something like that. It’s all a bit of a mess, but a spooky one.
The church and its misdeeds lie at the heart of this haunting, but the bishop may also have his own private reasons for meddling. Standing against him is an occultist who pops up at random to provide the other characters with exposition. Will this walking clue dispenser save the family from ill-defined supernatural threats? What do the bishop’s apparent Nazi sympathies have to do with any of this? And will the audience care by the time they reach the resolution?
The Banishing is heavily inspired by Borley Rectory, infamous as the most haunted house in England. While this is a fictional tale, the screenwriters made this inspiration obvious by naming their haunted house Morley Hall. Similarly, the occultist who keeps turning up is called Harry Reed, clearly modelled on the English ghost hunter Harry Price.
Barring the similar names, however, very little in The Banishing relates to Price or his extensive investigation of Borley Rectory. This is simply a ghost story that has borrowed a few historical references for window dressing. And that’s fine.
The Banishing frustrated the hell out of me. There’s a good film in here somewhere, but it’s not the one I watched. It’s beautifully shot, with a terrific cast and some really quite creepy moments. At its heart, it’s a classic ghost story of the type British cinema and fiction normally does so well. So where did it go wrong?
Simply, it’s the script. I found myself wondering how a filmmaker who had made so many tight, lucid horror films could be responsible for a sprawling mess like this. Then I saw that this is the first of Smith’s horror films not written by him.
There are two main problems with The Banishing‘s script. The largest, by far, is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It just layers weirdness and mysteries over each other until it’s impossible to know what to care about. It’s like eating a dish made by an excitable cook who has used every jar in the spice rack.
The only thing that makes all these plot threads at all comprehensible is the occultist who keeps turning up to tell the other characters exactly what is going on, sparing them any tedious investigation. Clearly, the most exciting way of resolving any mystery is through exposition.
The other flaw is that for all the ideas packed into The Banishing, none are particularly novel or interesting. You’ll have seen every aspect in other, better films. Once you strip the cruft away, you’re left with a perfectly serviceable ghost story, but one what would have felt like old hat when MR James was a lad.
This was my first real disappointment of the month. I hope things pick up from here. And let’s also hope that next time Smith makes a horror film, he writes it himself.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!