EVIL in the Family Tree Makes for a Terrifying “Reunion” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Recently separated from her philandering fiancé, a pregnant Ellie moves in with her estranged mother, Ivy, whose staying at Ellie’s recently-deceased grandparents family home and packing up home furnishings to put the house on the market.  Strained with going through a pregnancy alone and tirelessly working on her theoretic book of modern medicine deriving from the roots of barbaric magic and medieval practices, Ivy pledges to take care of her while providing space to let Ellie continue research work, but the house lends to the painful memories long thought suppressed in Ellie’s mind, manifesting visions of her adopted sister, Cara, who died suddenly in house when they were children.  As the visions become more prominent, stronger, and real, Ellie questions her remorseful memories and her mother’s recollection of events that sheds light on her family’s horrendous secret of anatomical science.

From the start, the realization that Jake McHaffy’s “Reunion” isn’t going to be a happy one comes as soon as Ellie crosses the threshold into her late grandparents’ home and is immediately swathed with a blanket of unsettling ambiance.  The “Wellness” and “Free the Deed” McHaffy writes-and-directs his third film with a steadfast sense of dread in the New Zealand mystery-thriller that tackles human inbred themes of long suffering guilt, prenatal anxiety, and the role of an estranged family during a time of need.  McHaffy compounds layered fears by compositing them with the confines of an old dark and creaky house witness to all the past secrets.  “Reunion” is a production from a conglomerate of New Zealand and U.S. companies that embark on independent filmmaking endeavors by Greyshack Films, the strong female character supporting Miss Conception Films, Overactive Imagination, and Water’s End Films in association with New Zealand Film Commission, MPI Media Group, and Department of Post.

“Reunion” obviously isn’t going to be your typical relative gathering shindig with your bad joke-telling uncle wisecracking over his 10th Miller Lite or a nose picking brat of a cousin cheating at horseshoes near the pit; instead, “Reunion” a tightknit cast playing the roles of mother, father, daughter, and adopted daughter drawn together not by the sake of longing for bloodline companionship but by necessity and circumstance and imploding by the unfun games of revelations hidden inside the closest deepest and darkest of descendants. “Witches of East End” stars Julia Ormond in a nearly unrecognizable far cry of her more glamourous bewitching role in Joanna Beauchamp on the FOX produced Lifetime Television series. The English actress, who hails from Surrey, assumes the matriarchal presence of a helicopter mother overextending herself beyond the limits of her control in order to seize some kind of power she once had living in the archaic house. Ormond bounces off mother-daughter indignities with her sole child, Ellie, played by Emma Draper in her first feature lead performance. Thick tension between them causes reserved friction Ormond and Draper do well to nurture throughout while a stammering posture by “Lord of the Rings” actor John Bach as the wheelchair bound infirmed father adds a whole new layer of irregular rigidity to Ellie’s nerves and to Ivy’s patience. Aside from being blood related, father, mother, and daughter also have another thing in common – present in the moment of the death of Cara (Ava Keane). Peeling back each emotion output struggles, in a good way, to grasp the character mindset made murky by uncontrollable shaking and crying, sneaking and conniving, lies and deceits, and the disillusioned rambles that vortex around the house without pure clarity. “Reunion” rounds out the cast with Nancy Brunning, Cohen Holloway, and Gina Laverty as young Ellie.

Jake McHaffy’s “Reunion” has the hairs on the back of your neck standing from beginning to end with prolonged foreboding leading up to a shocking finale.  Between the manic and enigmatic performances from Julia Ormond and Emma Draper, a chance to rekindle the past feels like a distant thought and a lost cause being blockaded by the past’s poignant trauma they share.  McHaffy isn’t hesitant about revealing a stymieing history with flashes of image splices and flashbacks cut with an antiquated VHS-style playback producing a statically charged visual incumbrance.  The stress and strain burden’s Ellie’s pregnancy, dam breaking flood of memories, her research into the occult, and the surrounding chaotic state of the house contributes to teetering mental stability creating a visceral unintelligible and augmented reality that is too real for Ellie to keep an authentic perspective and the longer she stays and the more she’s immerse into Ivy’s poisonous maternal supremacy, only fabricating a new and scary world can Ellie dig herself out of her family’s troubling past.  There’s much going on in McHaffy’s story to be bog down fully understanding what you’re seeing and trying to piece together the puzzle is nearly impossible – I, frankly, still don’t understand much of it – but the beleaguered attention of beguiling imagery and that overwhelmingly wild ending entrusts “Reunion’s” place in psychological terror. 

Modern gothic has never looked this good as “Reunion” rises to be a stalwart of horror. 101 Films and MPI Media Group has released “Reunion” digitally this month of March, one year after the start of the pandemic that has kept families away from each other and when eases of restrictions set in that’ll shorten the gap between estranged loved ones that becomes a distressing reunion in itself. Quite a masterful brush stroke from director of photography Adam Luxton building the house into the frame and framework of the story, which goes hand-and-hand with a house that’s deemed a toxic surrounding symbolized by the black sludge that drips out of the sink and into Ellie, as well as crossing video outputs and weaving them in as well. Luxton’s imagery has formulation maturity that combines hard and soft lighting, blurring, a range of depth shots, delineated night scenes, and the capitalization of utilizing the clutter of boxes and knickknacks to tell an eclectic visual odyssey culminating toward an all-consuming finale. The 95 minute runtime film is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio with no bonus scenes during or after the credits. “Reunion” creeps unsuspectingly into the skin, eyes, and soul as a metastasizing slow growth of appalling family drama.

One Can’t Just Pray Away EVIL in “The Banishing” reviewed! (Shudder – Vertigo Releasing / Digital Screener)

Set in a backdrop of Great Britain on the very brink of world war against Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, a small English community has nearly lost it’s entire faith in the Catholic church after the last priest suddenly and mysteriously died.  When a young vicar is offered a generous stipend, the village parish, and a large estate by the region bishop to restore a congregational foothold, he brings with him his new wife and stepchild to make the house their home, but the house has a dark history that might have played a role in the previous vicar’s death and a lone, eccentric occultist urges the family to vacate the premises immediately before the house swallows them into grave danger at the haunted hands of sadistic monks, ghastly visions, and a tormented soul roaming the corridors. 

If the prim-and-proper social class structure of Julian Fellows’ “Downton Abbey” collided with the volatile and tormented spirits of James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” then Christopher Smith’s pre-wartime staged haunted house feature, “The Banishing,” would be the outcome.  The period piece horror marks the latest installment into the genre from the Bristol, English-born Smith who made a name for himself with 2004 dark subway corridor heartstopper, “Creep,” and went on to make cult favorites amongst genre fans with the workplace violence satire, “Severance,” and the medieval bubonic plague film, “Black Death” starring Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne.  “The Banishing,” a term used as the practice within the supernatural ambit of dark magic to ward off negative spirits, is a UK feature co-written between David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich, and Dean Lines.  Maya Amsellem and Sharon Harel-Cohen serve as producers under the London-based WestEnd Films production banner with “The Banishing” marking their fifth completed feature film product and with the nearly worldwide distribution rights landing with AMC Network’s popular horror streaming service, Shudder, in partnership with Vertigo Releasing in the UK.

“The Banishing” revolves mainly around Marianne, the newly-wed vicar’s wife with a young girl along for the ride, played by Jessica Brown Findlay (“Downton Abbey,” “Victor Frankenstein”). Findlay endows Marianne with vitality as a woman who must meet the vicar’s standards of Godliness, but still be a strong mother to her child despite disreputable social standing. The priest Linus (Essex-born John Heffernan) lacks experience in the field of his cleric position, lending to question why the region bishop would appoint him to a muster a flock of faithful Christian followers during turbulent times. The husband and wife dynamic between Linus and Marianne is marred by dissonance backgrounds of a priest who doesn’t know to be with a woman and a woman who can’t escape her socially unflattering past. Heffernan and Findlay ignite as repellants of the same magnetic currents when the harder they try to extend their relationship, they push each other way, with Findlay giving a fervent performance. Speaking of performances, Sean Harris bares the most intriguing and rollicking local occultist. The “Mission Impossible: Fallout” actor parades around as Harry Price, a likable, straight-shooting outcast and a believer in the supernatural with extensive, and ghastly, historical knowledge on Linus and Marianne’s new home. As Price aims to extract the hapless from danger, he butts heads with a headstrong region bishop, a stern and solemn role secreted with distrust from John Lynch who has worked on a Christopher Smith film previously in “Black Death.” “The Terror” actor juxtaposes starkly against Harris as a character who dons a likeness to the clown prince of crime in costume than a dull agent man of the cloth…with secrets to uphold. “The Banishing” rounds out with a supporting cast in Adam Hugill, Jason Thorpe, Jean St. Clair, James Swanton, and Anya McKenna-Bruce as Marianne’s daughter, Adelaide.

Set convincingly in a quaint, 1930s English town, Christopher Smith transports the audience back in time to the predated anxious moments before World War II that would upheave turmoil across all across Europe, but though that fretted lingering of war is set as the backdrop for “The Banishing,” and is coiled around every man who served in the first Great War that brought up more than once, the root of the narrative ultimately becomes the house Linus and Marianne have come to call their home.  Haunted house films surmise the house as a built-in principal character because of either the way the architecture affects the mental or physical wellbeing of it’s flesh and bone counterparts or if the abode is actually possessed and set to harm the inhabitants in a personification of pure evil, as such with various films of this caliber (“House,” “The Haunting,” etc,). Yet, Linus and Marianne’s estate failed to become a part of the narrative limelight despite the immense grounds that compromised of a large greenhouse and a robust library complete with fireplace and the disconcerting labyrinth of a dungeon-esque basement full of barred enclosures and close quartered corridors.  Nearly every interior shot felt like a new section of the house hat kept extending upon, what would be assumed, a grand mansion that had a longer rap sheet by reputation in being a former religious torture chamber run by sadistic monks hellbent on whipping the sin out of the mentally tormented. Smith always had an eye for the unsettling visuals and sustains that feng shui by allowing time and space to be the inner horrors of a funhouse, but doesn’t evoke clean, unadulterated terror that continues to profusely bleed into the film’s climatic cause-and-effect unraveling. There is a lack of a transformative realization and a small hurtle of sedated possession to figure out that the main presence in the house, amongst the other more malevolent presences, wants something and the characters are spoon fed each and every morsel to get them up to speed. The final scene of the bishop meeting with the Nazi regime intended to leave the story open for supernatural possibilities, but felt like a more poignant and compelling crux leading into Nazi occultism, hinted by the eccentric resident occultist Sean Harris.

Morosely dramatic and haunting, “The Banishing” is an aggressive salvo of facing shame head-on, creeping into UK cinemas and digital platforms on March 26th courtesy of Shudder and Vertigo Releasing. Director of photography Sarah Cunningham has an remarkable ability to engulf the actors in the space of the shot, making them seem diminutive to the rooms that feel like a giant hand looming overhead, and with the bare, hard lighting, the cinematography is really where “The Banishing” shines as gothic cladding without a stodgy spot to speak visible. Cunningham adds all the hallmarks of a horror film with titled angles, brilliant reds, and tight shots on tense faces to garner a more anxiety that never actually pans out by the end. The organic electro duo TOYDRUM score the 97 minute film with a single note droning hums at various pitch levels that can really get inside your head. The “Prevenge” composers set up scenes with a ill-founded fears when nothing presently visible is intended to fright. There were no bonus scenes during or after the credits, but one scene to note is Sean Harris waltzing with an uncredited woman during the opening credits that seems out of place but speaks to the aberrated decorum of his character. “The Banishing” works tirelessly to discredit shame by confronting truth and while we’re being beat over the head by the message, the overlay of horror is lost despite some brilliant and engrossing performances from Findlay and Harris who usher us through to the imperfect conclusion.