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The Banishing (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Starring Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, Anya McKenna-Bruce, Sean Harris, Adam Hugill, John Lynch, Jean St. Clair, Jason Thorpe, Amy Trigg, Nigel Travis, Seamus O'Neill, Cokey Falkow, Sara Apostolaki, Matthew Clarke, Keith Dunphy, James Swanton,Danny Shayler, Jacqueline Foster and the voice of Francesca Fowler.

Screenplay by David Beton, Ray Lines & Dean Bogdanovich.

Directed by Christopher Smith.

Distributed by Shudder. 97 minutes. Not Rated.

This is the second British period piece about a based-on-real-life haunting that horror streaming service Shudder has released in the last two weeks. While both had their moments and some serious scares strewn about, neither one was exactly successful as a film. And last week’s release, The Power, was probably the better of the two.

That film was about a haunted hospital in London in 1974. This movie takes place during the days leading up to World War II at what the film’s promotional literature calls “the most haunted house in England.” I wonder who decided that? After all there are lots of haunted places in England. What criteria did they have to bring this house to the apex? After all, there appears to only be a few ghosts creating most of the havoc going on here.

Which is kind of a shame, because the rectory that The Banishing is based upon (a rectory is a church-owned living quarters close to a church for the rector of the parish and his family) – Borley Rectory in Borley, Essex, England – did have quite a fascinating history of haunting. (Again, I’m not sure it deserved the title of “most haunted in England,” but it at least deserves to be in the mix for the title.)

This is not officially a movie about Borley Rectory – in fact, there was a documentary called Borley Rectory made in 2017 – but a fictionalized version somewhat based on the story in a fictionalized version of the rectory. It is called Morley Rectory in this movie, and that is just the most basic difference between this film’s setting and the real place.

And frankly, the truth – or the legend at least – is more interesting than this fiction. In fact, The Banishing spends too much time on outside subjects; an unhappy marriage, the early days of World War II, feminism in the 30s, single parenthood, drinking, the politics of the church, fascism, religious zeal.

Each one of these little sidetracks distracts The Banishing from being what it promised to be – a ghost story. None of them really add much substantial to the plot. For example, it is intimated – and eventually shown straight out – that one character may be a Nazi sympathizer. This does not really affect the storyline much one way or another, it is just used as shorthand to show that he is a bad guy, a fact that was suitably demonstrated by his other actions in the story.

However, the setting which is supposed to be the Borley (sorry… Morley) Rectory is suitably creepy. The Banishing couldn’t have been filmed on the real site even if they wanted to because it was badly damaged in a fire in 1939 and demolished in 1944.

The unlucky new inhabitants of the manor are newlywed couple vicar Linus Forster (John Heffernan) and his wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her young daughter Addie (Anya McKenna-Bruce). They have not been informed of the fact that the last vicar violently killed his wife and then committed suicide (as shown in the film’s prologue), an act which has been covered up by the church.

Linus is a very reserved – almost repressed – man, while his new wife is rather modern and outspoken. They seem a bit of an odd couple, honestly, he seems to be too holy to even imagine touching her, and she seems like the only reason she would be with this buttoned-up guy would be to gain the respect she never had as a single mother in that era.

It’s not long before Emma finds some spooky dolls – one porcelain doll with its eyes broken out and three monks. Emma claims to be communicating with the dolls, who she says are protecting the house. Things start going bump in the night. There is an evil mirror in which the reflections do not move in time with the person gazing into it.

All of these are pretty standard ghost story scares, but they work fairly well at setting a chilling atmosphere. (And keeping in mind the time period of the Borley hauntings, they may have been pretty fresh when first suggested.)

The couple look in different directions to handle the paranormal activities that swirl around them. He naturally, goes to the church, specifically the somewhat squirrelly Bishop Malachi (John Lynch) – the very man who covered up the last killing.

She goes to an eccentric occultist in the town, Harry Reed (Sean Harris), the real-life paranormal researcher who is apparently the one who originally gave the Borley Rectory it’s “most haunted” reputation. As played in the film, Reed is wildly overdramatic, appearing drunk even when he is sober (which isn’t exactly often) and gesticulating crazily as evil is manifested around him. Yet, oddly, Reed is the most interesting character here, simply because he is so passionately embracing life in a world where most of the people are trying desperately to maintain complete control over their emotions.

If The Banishing had more of that reckless spirit, it would be a better film. Instead, it seems to want to mix its haunting with social discourse and personal strife, both of which tend to water down both the chills of the film and even the subplots it is exploring. And, as with so many ghost stories, the climax is concurrently overblown and underwhelming.

There is probably a good, scary dramatic film to be made from the legend of The Borley Rectory, but The Banishing can’t quite seem to reach those heights.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: April 16, 2021.

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