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The Banishing

Director – Christopher Smith – 2020 – UK – Cert. 15 – 97m

***1/2

A vicar, his wife and their daughter move into a haunted rectory which seems to be out to get them – on digital platforms from Friday, March 26th and Shudder from Thursday, April 15th

The Rev Stanley Hall (Matthew Clarke) is found hanged from the top of four-poster bed in his bedroom in the old rectory near the village. This follows a session with his hefty bible, annotated in placed with scrawled pentagrams and pages burned through with holes, his reading out loud Pauline admonitions against ‘sexual immorality’ and a bizarre vision of himself either having sex with or inflicting extreme bloody violence upon his wife (or possibly both at once – it’s not entirely clear). Bishop Malachi (John Lynch) is summoned to the house.

Three years later, Malachi installs a new vicar Linus (John Heffernan) in the property which has remained vacant in the interim. Linus is joined by wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her illegitimate daughter Adelaide (Anya Mckenna-Bruce) as well as the house’s incumbent deaf maid Betsy (Jean St. Clair). Like his predecessor, Linus is obsessed with abstaining from sexual immorality, despite his wife’s pointing out to him that they are married. It appears he’s wed her as an act of charity to provide her daughter with a father.

As in its opening sequence, the narrative becomes increasingly confused, although it’s set in a very specific time period, the 1930s and the rise of fascism as represented by the increasing threat of Hitler in Germany and people recruiting for the Spanish Civil War against the fascists in Spain.

Adelaide finds a doll and some monk figures in the house and plays with them. There are hallucinations involving three monks punishing and torturing a woman pregnant outside of wedlock. There’s a mirror in which the reflections take place several seconds after things happen in the real world. Marianne runs into doppelgängers of herself.

Bishop Malachi employs two thugs to beat people up and rob graves. He has a peculiar agenda which involves meeting fully uniformed Nazis in a lavish house. Local ginger-haired occultist Harry Price (Sean Harris) hangs out at the pub to explain elements of the plot: the rectory was built on the site of a monastery of Monassian monks who practised a “sick inversion of Christianity” while the house itself “turns children against their parents” and “husbands against their wives”.

Provided you don’t take any of this stuff seriously – and you can’t, because as edited on the screen here it doesn’t make a whole lot of coherent sense – it’s enjoyable enough as a movie about a haunted house out to get its occupants. That’s a shame, actually, because you can imagine it playing out like a supernatural thriller by Charles Williams (fellow Inkling of the better known J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis) with a more theologically adept script than the current, fairly unbelievable mishmash and being something really special.

Nevertheless, Smith has a lot of fun with it, shooting entire sequences in labyrinthine vaults below the building and playing around with the audience sense of what is real and what is hallucinatory. Harris provides a suitably anchoring presence as the occultist while Lynch plays the Nazi-collaborator bishop as if the role were believable (which it patently isn’t). The two vicars are sadly little more than caricatures which don’t give much space to their actors to do anything much with them.

There’s a nice turn from St. Clair as the maid. Mckenna-Bruce is suitably charismatic as the daughter but it’s Findlay as the fallen woman turned spurned clergy wife who steals the film as the main and thoroughly engaging woman in peril. She’s on screen about 80% of the time and proves highly watchable whenever present.

So, a likeable if ultimately somewhat silly pot-boiler which, while it will probably satisfy many in the horror constituency, for this writer pales beside such outstanding efforts of the director’s as Detour (2016) and Black Death (2010). For that matter, it also pales beside that truly incredible horror film about the Spanish Civil War Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006). A lightweight effort in a potentially much more heavyweight career.

The Banishing is out on digital platforms from Friday, March 26th and Shudder from Thursday, April 15th.

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