The Banishing doesn’t offer anything new in terms of haunted house films. A family moves into a creaky Gothic mansion with a ghastly past. They start to hear strange noises, including footsteps and thumping on the walls. Despite the familiar premise, the film’s WWII backdrop, the debate about how to contain fascism, and the crisis of faith at the narrative's core, make for an interesting story and worthwhile watch.
Directed by Christopher Smith and written by David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines, The Banishing is loosely based on the story of “the most haunted house in England,” the Borley Rectory, which caught fire in 1939 and was demolished in 1944. In the film, Linus (John Heffernan) and his wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) move to the estate with their young daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce).
Typical for this type of story, things do not go well for the family. First, Adelaide discovers creepy dolls linked to the estate’s grisly history. As the film ramps up, the sins of the past, which the church tried to bury, manifest in the present to torment and haunt the family. It turns out that monks tortured women and brutally reinforced patriarchal norms of the period.
The Banishing is filled with haunted house and Gothic tropes. However, tensions between Marianne and Linus save the film from veering into the cliché. Both are layered characters. Resolute in his faith, Linus believes England has no business engaging in WWII. Marianne, meanwhile, believes faith alone won’t save the country, telling her husband at one point, “Fascism is truly vile. Wouldn’t you agree?” When she wants to take up a collection to assist with the war effort, Linus demands she stop.
The anxieties of war feel palpable and ever-present. News reports on the radio speak of Germany’s advances in Europe. Marianne and Adelaide see a WWII news reel in the cinema, which later sparks fears in Adelaide that the “bad men” will kill them all. The looming threat England faces from an emboldened Germany worsens tensions within the family and show the personal and psychological impact of impending war. This subplot is one of the strongest in the film, far more tense and interesting than the creaks and eerie sounds of the Gothic estate.
Further, the couple’s relationship woes are compounded by Linus’ relationship with his faith. When he feels physical attraction to Marianne, he’s awash in shame, reciting Biblical passages that urge him to avoid lustful interactions, even if the couple is married. Haunted house stories work best when they serve as a metaphor for deeper family problems, be it economic anxiety or some other issue. In the case of Marianne and Linus, they clash over religion and whether their country should engage in WWII. At times, the Gothic home and its violent history are just a backdrop to the more intriguing human drama.
There’s another interesting conflict between Harry Price (Sean Harris), an occultist who knows about the estate's ugly history and the church's cover-up, and Bishop Malachi (John Lynch), who, like Linus, believes faith trumps all and anything else is superstition. This conflict deserved more time. There’s plenty to explore about why such devout men are quick to dismiss the possibility of supernatural activity.
The Banishing isn’t the most hair-raising film released this year. Old Gothic tropes rise like familiar ghosts. But the script has some fine points, namely how a family deals with the probability of war and tensions over the role of faith in a world rapidly falling apart. These storylines are bolstered by Heffernan and Findlay’s strong performances. Remove the ghosts, and at the heart of The Banishing, you have a story about a family trying to survive in an increasingly dangerous world and a bold matriarch who refuses to stand down in the face of evil.
The Banishing releases on Shudder April 15.
Follow HorrOrigins Social Media