Director Chris Smith has carved a somewhat niche career for himself as maker of transport-based horror-thrillers: we had 2004’s Creep (killer on the London Underground), 2009’s Triangle (killer on a derelict ocean liner) and 2016’s Detour (killer on a road trip). As a British director who failed to use his early buzz as a launchpad to better things, you wonder if he felt some indignation when horror supremo James Wan set The Conjuring 2 on Smith’s home turf – and made a much better fist of making a British horror than Smith ever has.
The reason for speculating is Smith’s latest, The Banishing, an original by horror streaming platform Shudder. Where The Conjuring 2 put the story of the Enfield poltergeist on the big screen, The Banishing goes for the next biggest fish, Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England (according to ’70s ghost bible The Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World). But this isn’t even the first time Borley’s made it to screen, and Smith has, for some reason, been required to change its name to Morley Rectory.
Borley Rectory earned its fearsome reputation thanks to sustained reports of hauntings over many decades, but Smith’s story focuses on the experiences of a semi-fictional young woman, played by the always-decent Jessica Brown Findlay, her frigid reverend husband, played by John Heffernan, and her daughter from another marriage. This dysfunctional family are installed in the rectory to find atrocities of the past and future echoing around its halls; luckily, loitering occultist Harry Price – a real-life figure, played by Mission: Impossible baddie Sean Harris – has beef with the house and wants to finish the job.
The problem with trying to ape the cinematic style of someone like Wan is that he’s a master of doing stupid scares cleverly. Though the elements are broadly the same as your average Conjuring Universe film – a creepy kid who plays with haunted dolls she’s found; a cellar-dwelling spirit – Smith’s hallucinatory jump scares never quite manage to achieve big air between bum and seat.
Sadly, The Banishing is a film that feels tired of its own existence, blithely going through the motions of a standard ‘restless soul’ plot that’s so predictable and played out it can barely be bothered to churn itself over from scene to scene, and barely needs to anyway – if you’ve seen five horror films, you’ve already seen The Banishing.
It’s Wan: nil to The Conjuring, then – and back to transport horror for Smith. He’s not done one on a funicular railway, yet…
- Director: Chris Smith
- Starring: Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, John Lynch
- Release date: April 15 (Shudder)