by Hope Madden
Filmmaker Christopher Smith has repeatedly proven a knack for horror.
Whether he locks us up in the tunnels beneath London with Franka Potente (2004’s Creep), transports us to the Dark Ages with Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne (2010’s Black Death), or forces us on a weekend corporate team building of death (the sublime 2006 horror comedy Severance), Smith takes an audience somewhere we probably shouldn’t go.
The Banishing drops us in rural England, just days before WWII. Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey) and her young daughter arrive at a beautiful-if-creepy estate where Marianne’s husband Linus (John Heffernan) has just been appointed Vicar.
Naturally, the house is haunted. The Church says one thing, but this odd redhead from town (Sean Harris, the picture of subdued weirdness) whispers another.
The Banishing is really the first Smith film to walk such familiar ground. His screenplay, co-written with David Beton and Ray Bogdanovich, takes inspiration from England’s infamous Borley Rectory—allegedly the nation’s most haunted house.
The direction that inspiration leads is rarely in question. Smith trots out a lot of familiar ideas, though he does package them well. Some incredibly creepy images accompany Marianne’s deepest fears, and Smith puts horror’s beloved old mirror prop to exceedingly spooky use.
Performances are solid as well. Findlay, in particular, finds depth and genuineness in the frequently portrayed role of the woman to be deemed insane in lieu of dealing with the supernatural.
Smith sometimes crosses over effectively into the inner working of the mind, and these scenes feel freshest and most engaging. They are overwhelmed, unfortunately, with stale plot devices.
The result feels very un-Christopher Smith-like (if there is such a thing). He’s been a tough filmmaker to pinpoint because each of his movies varies so wildly from the last. The Banishing looks and feels unlike anything else he’s done. Too bad it feels so much like what everyone else has.