The Banishing ★★★

It’s a story we’ve seen many times before: A white family moves into a big, old house – obviously unaware of its dark history. The daughter finds creepy dolls and communicates with them. The mother starts hearing voices and seeing things at night. The husband, a reverend, insists they stay in this house because the Church requested he move there. Soon, the evil lurking inside the house threatens to destroy their family. But Shudder’s recent film The Banishing manages to push the standard narrative of the paranormal subgenre and distinguish itself through its cast and cinematic techniques.

Set in England during the 1930s, the film follows Linus (John Heffernan), a reverend who at the request of the Church’s bishop Malachi (John Lynch) moves into a new town with his wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and their daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) to restore the villagers’ faith after their previous reverend mysteriously disappeared. When Linus and his family move into the same manor where the previous reverend once lived, they begin to notice strange voices and figures throughout the house. But when Marianne becomes frightened by her daughter’s increasingly strange behavior, she soon discovers the dark and horrifying past behind the manor and Church, which threatens to take Adelaide away from her. With the help of occultist Harry Reed (Sean Harris), Marianne and Linus confront the evil spirits in hopes of saving Adelaide.

Despite its unoriginal plot and characters, The Banishing provides a surprising amount of suspense and excitement. Blending meticulous camera movement with elegant shots, the film generates enough tension that not only intrigues the viewer, but keeps them engaged throughout. Its use of silence and minimal music make it particularly unnerving and alluring, allowing viewers to hear the creaks of the house and the shaking breath of each person who wanders in its halls.

In addition to its strong use of sound and visuals, actresses Findlay and McKenna-Bruce deliver striking performances that immerse them directly into the chaos within the manor. Filled with passion and wit, Findlay, most known for her role as Lady Sibil Crawley in the period drama Downton Abbey, commands the screen as a strong mother and draws viewers’ hearts with connection to her young co-star. While McKenna-Bruce doesn’t have as much screen time as Findlay, it’s clear that The Banishing is just the start of her career. Together, these actresses give the audience a reason to become invested and you can’t help but root for them.

While The Banishing is an unexpectedly entertaining watch, there are several moments where it becomes tangled in its own plot by excessively jumping through time and dumping random storylines as an attempt to increase its fear factor. Suddenly characters like a Nazi, sinister monks and a mutilated blind woman appear out of nowhere. Although they contribute somewhat to the film’s overall spookiness, the film struggles to properly incorporate each, which make them feel as nothing more than unnecessary and poorly pitched concepts. As a result, viewers are overwhelmed with more questions than answers, but nothing feels worth investigating.

There are also instances where scenes and dialogue feel forced especially when Marianne speaks with one of the monks. When Marianne learns of the connection between the monks and the mutilated blind woman who’s after her daughter, she is soon confronted by the monks themselves. “Confess your filthy, dirty past,” he says, looking at her with disgust. He then calls her a “whore” and “slut,” but Marianne’s face remains unphased. “I am a woman, a mother, and I do not regret the beautiful night I spent with Adelaide’s father,” explains Marianne. “In fact, I cherish it.” Despite her power as an actress, Findlay’s lines feel like an attempt to “modernize” the plot by making her seem like a strong woman who’s proud of her sexuality, but, unfortunately, it backfires eliciting nothing more than a chuckle or cringe.

However, the refreshingly fun twist at the end is what distinguishes The Banishing from other paranormal films. When Adelaide has been taken by the blind woman, Marianne, Linus, and Harry search throughout the house until they find the two hidden deep in the basement. Using her recently acquired knowledge about the manor’s history, Marianne empathizes  with the blind woman by helping her heal rather than hurting her – no exorcism or violence needed. Unlike other horror films that often pit mothers against one another, motherhood allows Marianne and the blind woman to connect and feel each other’s trauma.

Ultimately the good outweighs the bad in The Banishing. Featuring great female leads and an effortless command of suspense, it’s visually compelling in every sense with chilling audio that matches the emotional resonance of the narrative – perfect for horror fans of any level.

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