2.5 out of 5 stars

The time has surely come to declare a moratorium on dolls in horror movies. Things have got to the point that, whenever a nice young family move into a new home—as Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay), her husband Linus (John Heffernan), and daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) do in The Banishing—the jaded viewer’s first reaction is to wonder whether the creepy dolls will be in the attic or the nursery. 

It remains uncertain why wraiths and spectres are so particularly attracted to antique dolls and there are so few cinematic cases of, say, GI Joes or teddy bears being possessed. But doing away with dolls would at least open up opportunities for other items abandoned by previous home-owners to have their moment. Who says lightbulbs, cacti, or shower curtains can’t be scary?

Still, dolls it is, for now. And The Banishing (which can never be accused of neglecting a genre gimmick) has them aplenty, including a blind one (double points for gouged-out eyes), and a trio of sinister cowled monk figurines, which it seems unlikely any parent would buy for their kid if they wanted to sleep at night.

Adelaide’s games with these toys are the first sign something is wrong, after she and her mother move to join Linus at the rectory in Morley (an English village where he’s been sent as vicar to try and rebuild church attendance following the departure of the previous incumbent). At least, he’s told his predecessor simply left, but a brief prologue suggests the reality was bloodier than that.

“Morley Rectory” is, of course, a thinly-veiled reference to “Borley Rectory”, the Essex house commonly described as the most haunted in England. However, for all that The Banishing made of the Borley name in its marketing, the resemblance of “Morley Rectory” (which is also called “Morley Hall” at one point, confusingly) to Borley Rectory is limited.

The main connections seem to be the name, the period (the film’s set in 1938, the height of Borley’s notoriety) , and a rather dubious backstory about an ancient monastery. The real Borley Rectory was plagued by poltergeist activity, but the terrors of Morley Rectory are of a more baroque kind, mostly involving visions by Marianne that make us worry for her sanity.

There is, however, another link in the form of Harry Price (Sean Harris), a paranormal researcher who’s long held an interest in the rectory and takes it upon himself to warn Marianne about its dangers. He’s clearly based on the real-life Harry Price, who led an investigation into Borley, and even lived there briefly, though his filmic counterpart doesn’t follow suit.

It’s not an unpromising setup, packed with potent themes: female sexuality, the church’s treatment of women, secrets (made physical by something hidden in the cellar), and the presence of real evil in the world (with Nazi Germany becoming more aggressive in the background). But it takes on too many of them without exploring any fully, and it doesn’t help that the film has the distinct feeling of having been dramatically cut back, with the loss of scenes or lines that might’ve helped it make better sense. Even the title is unclear! Who, or what, is being banished, and from where?

Most problematically, the paranormal phenomena themselves are difficult to understand. Director Christopher Smith (Severance, Triangle) has spoken of his admiration for The Shining (1980), and certainly The Banishing is slightly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s film. “Ghosts are individual for the people,” Smith has been quoted as saying. “You get haunted by something different to the next man, based on your life. You go into the house, and the house unravels you.”

This is an interesting notion, but the result of this intentional inconsistency is that the haunting of Morley Rectory becomes a series of discrete incidents rather than a palpable presence. Sometimes characters appear to see things in their own future… sometimes they see themselves, sometimes others… and some incidents involve mirrors, but not all of them. It’s not clear why a ghost kills someone, if indeed it does. And then of course… there are those damn dolls.

These phenomena can be individually effective, and though The Banishing‘s never truly frightening there are points where it’s thoroughly spooky—but trying to portray a haunting which is more an amalgam of different, individualised hauntings inevitably makes it seem somewhat fragmented. And when an explanation is eventually forthcoming it appears out of the blue.

It’s a pity, because many elements of The Banishing are commendable. It has a fine sense of timing, both on a macro narrative level (apart from a couple of painful info-dumps), and on a micro editing level. There’s also some subtly disorienting photography, good sound, and a gorgeous if slightly excessive set design. (Surely country rectories in the 1930s weren’t this opulent?) The score by Toydrum (Pablo Clements and James Griffith) sometimes dips into horror cliché, but at its best it delivers an atmospheric soundscape of creaking, keening, crashes and bangs, becoming a kind of aural poltergeist of its own.

There are excellent performances from the central couple, too. Heffernan is perfectly cast as the vicar, being uptight, nervous, cold, jealous, and his distaste for his wife grows into loathing. (Is he gay and – as would be necessarily for a 1930s clergyman – closeted? Or is he simply repressed?) But as the film goes on its attention swings almost completely away from him toward Brown Findlay, who’s a different but equally persuasive character of passion and independence. A modern woman but also believable her time.

Harris, as the occult researcher, steals every scene he’s in—starting with a completely pointless and irrelevant tango to a distorted soundtrack, whose function is apparently only to turn the strangeness up a notch. Unfortunately, his undeniable presence isn’t always a good thing, and his character borders on the ludicrous. Smith’s said that Anthony Hopkins’s Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was the model, but the vibe that comes across is more of a 1960s and ’70s Hammer vampire slayer. John Lynch, meanwhile, is too louche to convince as a ’30s bishop, and like Harris conveys the impression of an older horror style. His character could have been played by Frank Finlay or Christopher Lee.

Specific aspects and moments in The Banishing do work well. But, as a whole, it never gels. It’s packed with ideas, but few of them are developed satisfactorily. The haunting feels like a random assemblage of chilling concepts rather than the work of a single supernatural force, and character’s thoughts and motivations and relationships are often indeterminate. There’s a whole other movie in Linus and Marianne’s strange unconsummated marriage, but this isn’t it. Even the creepy dolls can’t save this film from being peculiarly flat.

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UK | 2020 | 97 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Christopher Smith.
writers: David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich & Dean Lines.
starring: Jessica Brown Findlay, John Lynch, Sean Harris & John Heffernan.