Borley Rectory is a name that lives in infamy in the UK and has birthed countless books and films, after being given the moniker of The Most Haunted House in England by ‘psychic researcher’ Harry Price. Price becomes the character Harry Reed (Sean Harris) in a new Shudder horror film, which unfortunately has the forgettable and generic title The Banishing. We had a book about the rectory on our shelves when I was a kid and even the sight of it, unopened, would send shivers down my spine. Built in 1862, the main ‘haunting’ events occurred in the inter-war period, before the rectory was damaged by a fire in 1939 and demolished in 1944. In 1930, Reverend Lionel Foyster (the character Linus in the film, played by John Heffernan) moved in with his wife Marianne (played by Jessica Brown Findlay) with their adopted daughter Adelaide (played by Anya McKenna-Bruce). Lionel Foyster wrote an account of various strange incidents happening at the rectory including windows shattering, wall-writing and the locking of their daughter in a room with no key. Marianne Foyster reported a whole range of poltergeist phenomena that included her being thrown from her bed and on one occasion, Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible.” The fourth main character (created for the film) is Bishop Malachi, played by John Lynch – this is the man responsible for bringing the Foysters to Borley Hall (changed from rectory presumably for an American audience) after the last inhabitants meet a grisly end. Malachi appears to have mysterious and nefarious motivations, which reveal themselves fully by the end. Fortunately for horror fans, I can say that the film is more memorable than its title.
Historical horror films (especially with a Gothic influence) are right up my street and this specific period of the 1930s and the setting of a large stately home, even more so. The Little Stranger (2018) is another very good recent example of this genre. As soon as Adelaide starts playing with some creepy dolls that she finds at the house, you know you’re going to be in for a wild ride. From early on, it becomes clear that Marianne is going to be haunted by a version – or versions – of herself, a concept that reveals itself in various clever ways. There is Adelaide referring to her Coraline-style ‘other mother’, there’s the use of key-holes and mirrors through which Marianne can see her doppelgangers and the highlight involves a hallway full of mounted Mariannes. It is suggested that Marianne is haunted by herself due to the fact that she bore her daughter out of wedlock and it is her shame, guilt and fear of being discovered that is plaguing her. The motherhood themes, including fear of a baby or child being taken away and the way this manifests in the horror are the strongest elements. It’s an interesting thread that gets lost in the muddy waters of the other things the film is trying to do towards the end.
Jessica Brown Findlay is one of the UK’s best young actors, but is unfortunately still primarily known for Downton Abbey, despite her work in Black Mirror, Jamaica Inn, The Riot Club, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Harlots. Since his work in the incredible Red Riding Trilogy, it’s always good to see Sean Harris pop up in a wide variety of supporting roles, especially if they have a slightly unhinged edge to them. That is certainly the case here, aided by his vibrant red hair, red/orange clothes (costume design by Lance Milligan) and his tango-dancing character introduction. John Lynch has been making an impression since the 1990s, with roles in the 1993 version of The Secret Garden, The Name of the Father and Sliding Doors. John Heffernan is the least-known of the three main actors, but I was blown away by him on stage in the RSC’s Oppenheimer (2015) and it’s been good to see him cropping in various British films and TV shows since. It’s the acting that really sells horror films, especially when they start to veer into silliness, and that is certainly the case here, with Brown Findlay being particularly impressive.
Unfortunately, the plot starts to get overcomplicated with a whole “the rectory was built on a monastery” through-line and like many horror films, goes off the rails somewhat towards the end. The connection between Malachi and the Nazis is um, flimsy and we’ve seen one too many versions of Nazis being shoe-horned into mid-twentieth century horror films because of something…something…the occult. More could have been made of the pre-war setting without it careening off into this over-exaggerated arena. It’s a shame, because up until the final act, The Banishing has a lot going for it. It’s definitely still worth watching, especially if, like me, you have a penchant for period or Gothic horror. With a trio of strong actors giving strong performances at its centre, the interesting themes explored and the way they’re expressed through the use of mirrors and multiplication in the first three-quarters, The Banishing is a new British horror film that’s worth your time.
THE BANISHING will stream exclusively on Shudder from April 15 2021 in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.