Just as non-existent video store shelves are overflowing with found-footage horror films, the internet is bursting at the seams with people bitching about them. It’s well deserved as the vast majority of movies utilizing that format are criminally terrible, but they’re cheap to produce, capable of turning our the occasional winner, and aren’t going away anytime soon. Faux-documentary horror movies aren’t nearly as ubiquitous, but the best ones manage to cherry pick elements from the format above while avoiding many of the pitfalls.
Banshee Chapter is both found-footage and faux-documentary, and yet it’s also neither.
The U.S. government has admitted to various highly unethical tests and experiments performed on unwitting civilians in the early ’60s, and while official apologies have come and gone the details of the incidents have never been fully known. Until now, apparently. Anne Roland (Katia Winter) is a working journalist who begins an investigation when an old friend of hers disappears after experimenting with one of the C.I.A.’s test chemicals. The drug in question, MK-Ultra, appears to stimulate the pineal gland leading to a greater awareness of the world and its less visible inhabitants. But just as H.P. Lovecraft warned in “From Beyond,” the strange beings that the drug’s users are made privy to can also now see them, and anyone could tell you that’s not going to end well.
Anne’s friend, James Hirsch (Michael McMillian), tried some of the drug while his friend recorded, and events spun out of control to the point that both men eventually disappeared. After viewing that tape and others she sets off into the world of shortwave radios and the real-world mystery of so-called numbers stations broadcasting odd noises, voices, and number sequences. Along the way she also enlists the aid of bestselling author and conspiracy theorist Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine). Together they realize perhaps too late that some theories are left unconfirmed.
Writer/director Blair Erickson brings a promising degree of depth to his film’s story, and even as it reminds of (and lifts from) Lovecraft’s story and Stuart Gordon’ far superior film the addition of real history adds a new level of intrigue and engagement to the tale. The film also looks good for an indie project with a firm grasp on style and the art of the jump scare, but despite these elements the damn thing just doesn’t work all that well as a cohesive whole.
The immediate issue is an unnecessarily confusing format and presentation. Early scenes point towards found-footage, but then that’s replaced with narration and footage presumably from a documentary. Anne’s voiceover tells us her investigation will be one more collaboration with her old friend Thomas, but soon both of these elements are discarded and we’re seemingly in a traditional narrative film. What was the point?
Far more damaging are the non-expositional sections of the script that will leave you shaking your head in frustration at character actions and decisions. At one point Anne watches footage of herself on a security monitor descending a set of stairs that now sits behind her. Clearly there’s a time delay, yet one she continues to watch and sees a second figure on the screen she completely and utterly fails to react. Later, with danger approaching, she adamantly refuses to pick up a discarded gun to defend herself against a very physical enemy. These are just two examples of a script that nails the story but sadly proceeds to rely on stupidity to setup its scares. Speaking of scares, while a couple moments will elicit jumps there is far too big a reliance on loud noises/musical cues to create the jolts.
Some iffy supporting actors aside the performances here are more than capable of engaging and delivering the dramatic goods. Winter has a carefree, natural way about her that makes the more horrific scenes that much more tension-filled, and Levine brings his wealth of experience to a character clearly patterned after a Hunter S. Thompson-like personality. Sure that doesn’t explain why Levine channels W.C. Fields more than once, but he’s memorable at the very least. There’s also a chuckle to be had for fans of his most famous role when another character tells him “It wants to wear us.” It’s a notion not entirely unfamiliar to Mr. Levine.
Banshee Chapter shows promise, and while it ultimately fails in this instance it still bodes well for future work from Erickson. He has a good eye, and if he can match the depth of his story interests with a smarter, sharper script overall we’ll all be better off for it.
The Upside: Interesting premise has more depth than most films of this type; Ted Levine
The Downside: Format clash between found-footage, faux-doc, and traditional narrative simply doesn’t work; non-story script elements are weak; seriously, pick up the goddamn gun
On the Side: Several members of the film crew also worked on AMC’s Breaking Bad.