GORE IN THE STORE
IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHER SMITH
Following the crime thriller DETOUR, director Christopher Smith returns to horror with his haunted house movie, THE BANISHING.
In 1930s England, Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) move into town, where her husband Linus (John Heffernan) has been posted as the new reverend. After the mysterious disappearance of the previous reverend’s family, Linus is tasked with rebuilding the congregation, but no sooner have they arrived than Marianne is haunted by ghostly voices, figures dressed as monks, and mysterious totems. Adelaide’s behaviour becomes stranger by the day, and Bishop Malachi (John Lynch) takes a forceful approach to quietening Harry (Sean Harris), a local who believes the family are in grave danger.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Smith discussed playing on the secrets and fears we all share, and questioning the romanticisation of the past.
FRIGHTFEST: In TRIANGLE and DETOUR you had an interest in characters trapped in cycles they couldn’t escape, that Marianne’s interaction with the supernatural echoes. If there’s the idea that some storytellers are retelling the same story, it’s not replication, but that you’re drawn to themes and ideas.
Christopher Smith: It’s exactly what you said, it’s not that you keep making the same film. People say that [Yasujirō] Ozu made the same film 50 times. They’re all brilliant, and he was fascinated at looking at relationships and families. I'm still fascinated and intrigued by the end of 2001, or the end of THE SHINING, in the way that those films resonate so much in the human psyche.
… If you look at this story from Marianne's perspective, she had an illegitimate child, she suffered a mental breakdown, she has a husband who judges her for simply being a woman and having a history. What it says is that when you look at this period and relate it back to Brexit, “Was the 1930s that perfect period that you think you want England to go back to?” It was the period when you could be trapped in a loveless marriage, you couldn’t be gay without feeling deep shame, and it was illegal.
I'm trying to show that just as in her life there's this circle that she's trapped and locked in, so too is the world. The scariest thing of recent times and why I touch on fascism in the film is, we grew up asking, "How did that happen? And how did it happen in Germany?” Now we know how it happened because we're watching it happen in America, watching it happen here. It's not a mystery, it's vile and foul, and it has to be stamped out.
FF: If religion is part of your upbringing, you can cut away the branches but the stump is more difficult to remove. As a lapsed Catholic, I wouldn’t want to disavow religion entirely because it’s a great source of ideas for storytelling.
CS: … I grew up going to Sunday school and then moved away entirely from religion. Being in church is one of the most boring things ever, I'll just say it, but I believe that faith is inherently homo sapien.
I saw this documentary where these chimps were revering a tree, bringing stones to it at the same time every year. It's in us to think there's more than us, and that’s the tree stump. Even if you say you’re not religious, there's still something in you that contributes to these films and the otherness. We have a brain that can ask all the difficult questions, but not have all the answers, and so it fills them in, and that’s what this touches on.
Is the vicar judging her because deep down he thinks she was a sinner, or is he just jealous that she had someone else, and he fears her sexuality? There's an impotence to him, and I tried to subtly touch on all those little, grubby secrets and fears that are in us all.
FF: The attitude towards Marianne echoes the tendency of society to punish and condemn, rather than show compassion and understanding. It occurs to me that having lived a life, she’s more pure and authentically moral than the men of scripture.
CS: Totally, and that's why we bring in Harry, a modern character thrust into this old world. He can see the hypocrisy of all those around him, and Marianne is also a modern woman. They’re both in the wrong time, and with the relationship aspect there's no story if you set it now, but the story still works on a human level of jealousy.
The idea is the house, or the power in the house, or the power of fascism, whatever it is, that power is exploiting why Malachi wants these bones. It’s because if you can harness the ability to turn a man against a woman, a mother against her child, and a child against her mother, then that evil is useful.
FF: All of these ideas are shrouded in a unnerving atmosphere filled with suspicion and suspense. How do you take an understanding of tension and fear and create that on screen? I imagine it must be a challenging process, because until you’re editing the film it’s in a raw form, requiring you to have faith in your choices.
CS: It is and it isn't. You begin with the idea of the scene and where you're going to shoot it. What I like about film making is the nature of the decisions you make, and they’re multiple. You can make the wrong decision, and that can be as simple as you cast the wrong person, or you've got the wrong location. So to make a masterpiece you don't make any wrong decisions, but you can change things and paper over the cracks if you've made a mistake, and that's what editing is for.
Abel Ferrara's INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS is not a great film, but it has one favourite scenes of all time, which is Meg Tilly when she's just standing there in the half light of a room saying, “Where are you going to run? Where are you going to hide?”
It's so fucking scary and I just look at that scene and ask, "What is that scene?” It’s on a wide angled lens, but it's a mixture of her, the lighting, the way he's framed it - it's everything, and that's the stand-back scene of the film. You could say, "Was that film luck?” No, it wasn't because it's the stand out scene of the film, it's the ear cutting scene from RESERVOIR DOGS. Sometimes it's where the magic happens - you prep, you've got a level of talent yourself, you've got talented actors, talented crew and sometimes it all clicks, but maybe not for the whole film. It might be for just that scene that the film is a masterpiece, and that scene has stayed with me for the rest of my life.
THE BANISHING is available now on Digital Platforms and is streaming on Shudder from 15th April.