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There will never be too many atmospheric horror movies about breathy English women trembling down the hallways of a haunted Victorian mansion and growing paranoid about whatever it is they hear going bump in the night. So it should be an unalloyed pleasure to watch a new one as musty and well-polished as Christopher Smith’s “The Banishing.”
All of the proper ingredients are in place, starting with a creepy old house based on the Borley Rectory (which occultist Harry Price designated as “the most haunted house in England”), some wide-eyed new tenants ripe for the scaring, and an oppressive religious streak that’s paved over all manner of dark secrets since an order of monks first occupied the property during the Middle Ages. Stir in some creepy-looking dolls, a slight hint of Nazis, and a redheaded Sean Harris — as Harry Price himself! — whisper-sniveling dialogue like “Denial is the teat on which the beast will suckle,” and you’re well on your way toward sating a Gothic horror fan’s lifelong hunger for new films in the spirit of “The Innocents,” “The Haunting,” and “The Others.”
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Alas, for all of its tantalizing suggestions and impeccable craftwork, at a time when films like Remi Weekes’ “His House” and even television shows like “The Haunting of Bly Manor” have so elegantly managed to preserve old genre traditions by embalming them with the problems of our modern world. Which isn’t to suggest that Smith (along with screenwriters David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines) doesn’t try to do just that in its own backward way; like a cloth thrown over a crystal ball for cover, “The Banishing” uses the musty surface of its well-worn story to emphasize the timeless power of the energies being summoned underneath. It just doesn’t do that very well.
It would be one thing if “The Banishing” zipped through its ultra-familiar setup in order to spend more time messing with our expectations, but the whole film is paced at a hurry that makes it seem out of sync with the sinking dread of its tradition, and reduces even the most critical subplots into the stuff of rumor. It starts, as these things often do, with a beautiful young woman moving into a creaky house so full of crosses — including a giant one chained over the headboard of her bed — that you just know Jesus has never been inside those walls.
The flush and red-blooded Marianne (“Harlots” star Jessica Brown Findlay, riffing on one-time real-life Borley resident Marianne Foyster) comes to the manor unaware that its previous vicar ended his stay with a bloody murder-suicide. The current vicar is her new husband Linus (John Heffernan channeling Tom Hiddleston), a man so pious and undersexed that it’s impossible to imagine him courting a modern girl like Marianne, let alone touching her skin; for a movie that couldn’t be less horny if it tried, “The Banishing” is mighty concerned with how patriarchal religions twist people into submission by turning sex into a mortal sin. Perhaps there’s some other arrangement at work here. For all of Marianne’s self-evident charms, it’s tough for a single mother to secure a decent marriage in 1930s England, let alone for one whose pre-adolescent daughter has a habit of playing with the creepiest dolls in the world (Anya McKenna-Bruce does a fine job as Adelaide, the kind of standard-issue kid character who inevitably makes an invisible friend on her first day at fake Borley).
Things sour in a hurry, as Marianne is confronted by all sorts of low-grade spookiness. Smith prioritizes earned unease over cheap jolts, but most of his tactics fail to get under the skin or snowball into a more pervasive sense of horror. If anything, the rotten amber of Sarah Cunningham’s evocative cinematography — cut with harsh shadows and hiding all sorts of sinister things inside its soft focus — makes you wish the movie would lavish more attention on the house itself, and kindle whatever dark inferences you might draw from the way that Marianne’s dress matches the decaying floral wallpaper.
From the moment he first appears on screen in a long slow-dance during the opening credits, Harris’ Harry Price is the most interesting of the rectory’s many intruders. An eccentric psychic researcher who’s haunted in his own right, Harry initially seems like an exposition machine on the fritz. After stumbling into Linus’ chapel with a rambling speech about all of the terrible things that have happened in the house next door — vomiting up backstory faster than anyone can reasonably be expected to digest it — he spends the rest of the movie acting like a fly in the ointment for the local church, whose thugs are happy to make him turn the other cheek whenever he walks onto the cursed property.
Harris endows Harry with the same degree of zealous menace that makes him such an efficiently compelling villain in the “Mission: Impossible” series, and his performance here is burnished with a righteous urgency that makes you wonder if he might be the only sane man in a world that’s on the brink of another god-awful war — or at least the only one lucid enough to see how fascism and religion often scare people into submission along the same lines. As one character says of the crime scene in the film’s prologue: “Clean up what you can. Burn the rest.”
“The Banishing” suddenly pricks up like the hairs on your neck whenever Harry is around, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’d convince us to care about this story if only Smith gave him the time. But Harry, like so much of what threatens to make this movie stand out, is shunted off to the side (and locked in a “Highlander”-like side battle between an ominous church figure played by John Lynch) in order to make room for run-of-the-mill haunting material that never manages to connect the dots between real and representative horrors.
Smith renovates the Borley Rectory into a literal house of mirrors that reflects back at the present by trapping its residents in a seemingly inescapable past (the video game “P.T.” continues to be a hyper-salient reference point for so much of contemporary horror cinema). And yet that clever approach is undone by an edit that cuts the scares away from all of the context they need to sink in, and the small handful of memorable images — hooded monks appearing in Adelaide’s bedroom or glued to the hallway walls — aren’t nearly enough to compensate for the banality of what’s powering them from the basement. “The Banishing” ends with such a walloping undertow of “wait, that’s it?” that it earns little more than the backhanded compliment of realizing you expected a lot more from it.
“The Banishing” will be available to stream on Shudder beginning Thursday, April 15.
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