One of the most inspirational films that revolutionized the horror genre was the 1979 haunted house classic The Amityville Horror. Leading to generations of other similar films, director Christopher Smith brings back traditional horror in his latest film in The Banishing for Shudder and RLJE Films. I spoke to him about how the film came about, his career evolution, and casting.
"[The Banishing] is a traditional ghost story," Smith said. "I start saying to the writers and say, 'What you sent, I want to lean into the historical context, and I also want to lead into the horror we did with the relationship, like how does this reverend be this beautiful husband and how do we make that credible? We didn't want to sort of sugarcoating the historical drama. For example, if you look at Downton Abbey, they just see this very picturesque view of the world. It just wasn't like that. I wanted to just sort of have all the tropes of the costume drama get me into it with the darker view of marriage and dysfunction. As well as obviously the thing you have to do with horror of any kind is supervised, scare moments, and jumps coming at it from a slightly different direction, which is this is where we ended up with it."
The film focuses on the most haunted house in England in the 1930s, where a young reverend, his wife, and daughter move into a manor with a horrifying secret. "It is a great comfort with horror that you use," Smith explained. "There's a very loyal audience, but they describe it as a kind of agreement that if you want to explore certain things, you have to make sure you deliver other things. I've seen many horror movies where you have to jump through effectively, but I didn't care about the characters one bit. When you see films like It Follows, where I really did like this guy bought into it in a kind of indie movie. It's as much about filmmaking. I'm kind of always at a crossroads. When I embarked on this, it was very much to try to lean into character more and see how far we could take that, and if you get that right, it helps. If you don't, then it doesn't. I think that's kind of where I began with this one."
A wide range of horror influenced Smith's work throughout his career since he started with his first feature, Creep, in 2004. "I'm 59, and I grew up watching the Amityville Horror, the slashers, the films we were watching in the early 80s," he said. "I liked growing up watching films like Friday the 13th and Halloween, and now obviously there's been others like Sinister and The Conjuring, and they're very sexy films and were a polished product of the jump scare and everything else. Amityville Horror and films like that, they're actually character films that are actually about a family moving in now. If you go back to the reviews, they operate at a slightly different pace, and I'm definitely influenced by that. It's not just a well-designed theme park ride; it's more than that. That's what we've done with this one. I've tried to do with this one. That's the ambition anyway. So it's interesting in mentioning The Amityville Horror because certainly, the first one was the original was the character drama as much as it was, things that jump into the night."
When it came to casting, Smith already had an idea who he wanted. "It came out of this Blumhouse model," he said. "If you can make it for a certain amount, you end up with almost complete creative control because it's not driven by who's in the cast as much. Obviously, I'm driven by getting the best actors in. I had a relationship with Sean Harris. I knew him from Creep (2004), and I also worked with Jessica Brown Findlay before. So when we knew that we could get raise the money for the film, I said, 'I'm going to reach out to Sean. I'm a big fan of [Francis Ford] Coppola's Dracula (1992) and love the performance by [Sir Anthony] Hopkins as Van Helsing. When I spoke to Sean, he said, 'Well, maybe we should go big with this, and I should create a little character and really bring some color to it, and he walks up on set, and his hair's dyed red. He's created this really interesting character in Harry Reed." The film, which also stars John Hefferman, Adam Hugill, and John Lynch, will be available on-demand digital, DVD, and Blu-ray on November 2.