Review: Pre-War Haunted House Horror ‘The Banishing’

After cult favourites such as Creep, Triangle and Black Death, Christopher Smith continues to impress as one of British horror’s most interesting filmmakers – something showcased in his latest feature The Banishing. By filling a pre-war period setting with themes of patriarchal misogyny, the rise of fascism, and the sins of the church by the way of a Gothic haunted house chiller, The Banishing quietly impresses for the most part.

Set in 1938 where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement seeks to downplay the risk of fascism, vicar Linas (John Heffernan) and his fallen-woman wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her daughter (Anya McKenna-Bruce) move into a grand parish estate with a dark history. Under the watchful eye of the local Bishop Malachi (John Lynch) and concerning musings from local fanatic Harry Price (Sean Harris), the full horrors of the house slowly begin to reveal themselves.

The Banishing opts for a rather restrained approach to its horror with Smith taking time to build an unsettling atmosphere of the foreboding horrors of fascism from radio snippets to rumblings in the small town. There is subsequently a wonderful attention to period details with Chris Richmond’s production design and Sarah Cunningham’s cinematography crafting the small period English village’s tense atmosphere throughout the film. There are echoes of classic Hammer Gothic horrors in the haunted house aesthetics from creaking pieces of antiquated furniture to disturbed looking children’s dolls. This period detail is furthered in Lance Milligan’s costume designs with Jessica Brown Findlay’s classic gowns fitting into the decor of her new home with an impressive synchronicity – sometimes appearing to blend into the walls of her ominous building.

Smith and writers David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines find much mileage in the concept of duplicity and use of mirrors. The mirrors serving as much of the vessels of the horror in The Banishing, whilst also mirroring the rise of Europe’s fascism with the troubling fascistic misogyny of the house’s past – something which bleeds into present as Linas struggles to cope with his new role and the pressures from the church. These pressures are set up from The Banishing’s brutal opening scenes which lay the groundwork for the troubling horrors that the house contains. Some of the strongest moments of the film see lingering mirror images observing our protagonists within the house – whilst not wholly original to The Banishing, these do have an unnerving effect and help further the woozy, tense and unsettling atmosphere of the film.

As disturbing visions begin to creep into the narrative and three grey hooded figures begin to take hold of the action, The Banishing veers further into traditional horror territory with echoes of familiarity in this. Additional familiar tropes such as the fanatic – played with a gravel voiced mania by Sean Harris – and the corrupt Bishop – an impressive, foreboding John Lynch – add further intrigue and gradual sense of escalation to The Banishing whilst always opening the film into discussions surrounding church cover-ups, period judgement, and religious links with fascism.

Jessica Brown Findlay brings a natural conviction to the forefront of The Banishing as Marianne – a character who does not necessarily fit the religious establishment with which she now finds herself within. Findlay succeeds in grounding the film whilst tackling the scenes of horror in a grounded, understated manner.

With elegant aesthetics and intriguing parallels centred on the rise of fascism and duplicity, The Banishing impresses. It does feel somewhat familiar and perhaps too restrained at points, but Smith has nonetheless crafted an atmospheric slice of Gothic horror.

The Banishing is available on Shudder from March 26th.