Today on “Escape to Horror Country,” we visit a haunted parsonage in Essex, a manor house that in a prior life, was home to a burned-out Christian sect, and the period perfect setting for “The Banishing,” a pre-war British period piece, because aren’t they all?
Christopher Smith’s thriller (now on Shudder) is proof that if you get the gloomy tone, the production values and period polish perfect, your haunted house tale is halfway there. But it’s that other half that’s that separates the terrifying from the travelogue.
Something’s going on in Morley Hall. A prologue shows us a vicar who descends into murder-suicide madness, obsessed by First Thessalonians 4:5, warnings about avoiding “lustful passion,” as St. Paul put it, “like the Gentiles.”
“Three years later” a new vicar (Paul Heffernan) is on the job and in the house. Bringing his wife (Jessica Brown Findlay) and daughter (Anya McKenna-Bruce) and their troubled marriage into it can’t be a good idea.
The bishop (John Lynch, good casting) didn’t warn him. He’s the one we saw walking in on the murder suicide, and promptly pouring himself a whisky in his best “nothing to see here” nonchalance.
But there’s this wild-eyed visitor (Sean Harris, great casting) who has…answers. It’s about the house, the “sect” that had a monastery on this land, what happened to them and what happens there now.
“Is the house playing games with your wife’s head?”
It is — visions, mirrors that don’t perform to spec, thump and moans, and these creepy dolls that little Adelaide finds and plays with, a girl doll that looks like “Annabelle” prototypes, and tiny cowled monks who watch over her.
The basements in these British fixer-uppers always look like dungeons, and that’s always where little girls wander and their guilt-ridden mummy’s see the awfullest things when they set out in search of their child.
That’s the state of the horror, here, a child menaced, perhaps possessed, a husband in denial and a mother under supernatural assault because of her childcare skills.
The kid is properly creepy, and Findlay (“Brave New World,” “Harlots,” “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”) does a fine job of testily judging her repressed and somewhat shamed husband and increasingly alarmed mother not able to process the threats to herself and a little girl who stops acknowledging her as her mother.
Hefferman’s vicar in meltdown mode passes muster. And there’s value in putting the sinister, whispering Harris and menacing Lynch into opposition, playing two men at odds over “the secret” of the house and maybe the politics of Britain on the cusp of a World War where you were either fascist or anti-fascist.
That last element is handled quite clumsily. The story’s dawdling pace works against it, and attempts at injecting urgency into the third act seem too chatty and explanatory for suspense to build.
The effects are more interesting than chilling –sequences in which the vicar’s wife sees different versions of herself in various states of terror over what she’s experiencing, or fears she’s caused.
I have to say I like this sort of 1930s Gothic horror, even though I’m generally more impressed by the detail than jolted by the frights. But the cast and the period piece pall they perform under make this mixed-bag of a thriller worth a look.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, Anya McKenna-Bruce, Sean Harris and John Lynch
Credits: Directed by Christopher Smith, script by David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich and Dean Bogdanovich. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:37