There’s something about Britishness that lends itself well to haunted houses: the top-button austerity, the stiff upper lip, the willingness to live in extremely creepy, crumbling old homes. This has led to classics like 1961’s The Innocents, the more recent The Others, and the underrated The Little Stranger. But as any guest of Netflix’s Bly Manor can attest, restraint has its drawbacks. There’s a fine line between classily understated and boring.
Thankfully, boring is one word you couldn’t use to describe The Banishing, which defies expectations of understated British horror with giallo maximalism. Where so many directors would have made one choice, Christopher Smith (Severance, Black Death) makes 10: Mirrors! Dolls! Masochist monks! Bishop gangsters! Nazis! Time travel? Poltergeists! Child possession! A critique of Neville Chamberlain’s pre-WWII policy of pacifism! The patriarchy! And on and on. Over its modest runtime, the film keeps cramming in new ideas and plot elements, right up until the penultimate scene.
The Banishing ostensibly retells the story of the Borley Rectory, a.k.a. “Britain’s most haunted house,” though by what metric that’s determined is anyone’s guess. (Is it the number of ghosts? The veracity of the hauntings?) The film starts with a bang, as a man (Matthew Clarke) wandering around a large Gothic manor stumbles upon a doppelgänger of himself strangling a bloodied woman. Within moments, we’re clued in as to how seriously this should be taken, when a nonchalant bishop (John Lynch) comes upon the terrible aftermath and casually pours himself a big whiskey.
What follows has the basic mechanics of The Shining. Perfectly coiffed Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay); her vicar husband, Linus (John Heffernan); and their young daughter, Adelaide (Anya McKenna Bruce), move in following the previous family’s aforementioned nasty end, only to find that the house intends something similar for them. Findlay, best known for playing Lady Sybil in the first three series of Downton Abbey, shines here. Marianne is bold, sexy, and rebellious but trapped in a marriage and a society that continually underestimates her. There are times when her bravery pushes the limits of believability (does she comprehend the gravity of being trapped in a haunted house?), but for the most part she’s a convincing and charismatic heroine. Meanwhile, Linus is far less sympathetic, a wet blanket whose belief that sexual desire is inherently sinful renders his marriage cold and unaffectionate. His journey is fuzzier than Marianne’s, and it’s never entirely clear where his loyalties lie and what, if anything, the spirits have planned for him.
Beyond Findlay’s anchoring performance, what The Banishing has going for it is Sean Harris, an actor whose chameleonic abilities cannot be overstated. Best known for his terrifyingly intense antagonist in the last two Mission: Impossibles, he deploys the same intensity to blackly comic effect here, playing boozy occultist Harry Reed with a raspberry-red dye job and an uncanny resemblance to Jim Broadbent’s Moulin Rouge owner. Both Smith and Harris seem to be having an absolute whale of a time whenever his character is on screen; the actor stops just short of licking his co-stars as he whispers key plot points into their ears. It’s hard not to be tickled by a film that contains, apropos of absolutely nothing, Harris dancing an Argentinian tango by himself on a country lane only to stop because a babbling brook screams at him.
All of which sure sounds like a great time, and in many ways, it can be. But the incoherence grows more grating as the movie shuffles along, and though Smith conjures a few genuinely unsettling images—getting some mileage, especially, from creepy mirrors and even creepier children—the frequency of these moments has a cumulative deadening effect. (By the time the 47th manifestation of evil appears, it barely raises an eyebrow.) While it’s admirable that this isn’t just another haunted house movie that relies solely on atmosphere and a handful of jump-scares, The Banishing is, in the end, a bit too much: Watching it is akin to sitting through a supercut of highlights from a season of American Horror Story (subtitle: British Countryside). There’s fun to be had, but too little of it can be un-ironically admired.