Halfway into The Banshee Chapter, a character played by Ted Levine tells our heroine about From Beyond, a story by H.P. Lovecraft about a scientist who developed a tuning fork that stimulated the pineal gland of anyone nearby, enabling people to see all manner of interdimensional horrors - this immediately recalled the vastly superior horror film of the same name and made me want to stop watching this to bring up a copy of Stuart Gordon's classic - not a good sign for a film that presumably wants to keep you glued to your seat in anticipation of what comes next. Not that The Banshee Chapter is devoid of merit - quite the opposite, as it is technically well-made and has numerous effective shock moments. However the haphazard stitch-together of different film footage - which is mostly jettisoned in the second half of the film - and a lack of a truly intriguing premise or interesting characters (Ted Levine's character aside) means this is geared more for obsessives about these sorts of films.
|Director: Blair Erickson
Starring:: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian, Monique Candelaria
Screnplay: Blair Erickson, Daniel J. Healy
The Banshee Chapter starts strongly enough, with a solid intro that uses real footage of interviews with people like the late-70's CIA Director and a grim-faced chemist, and later President Bill Clinton, that sets an unexpected and uneasy tone for what's to come. Basically, they're talking about secret government experiments on the U.S. population. Good stuff - so what can we expect from this? Government cover-ups, Deep Throat-style info leakings, people breaking into offices at night to steal files...awesome.
Unfortunately we get none of these potentially shadowy exploits. What we do get is footage signalling the disappearance of a writer named James (Michael McMillan) who tries the contraband Government research chemical DMT-19 (because that's a rational thing to do, of course) and subsequently disappears. His friend, online news blogger/investigative journalist Anne Roland (Katia Winter), follows the trail to see what happened to James and to track down the source of the DMT-19 chemical. There's also something to do with these strange radio transmissions that involve unnerving music and a little girl's voice. On her journey she gets involved with a Hunter S Thompson-esque counter-culture activist/novelist named Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine).
The Banshee Chapter uses some of the "found footage" style of filmmaking which is so unfortunately prevalent in so-called 'horror' films these days - undoubtedly they are easier and cheaper to make, but the results usually aren't so much shocking as they are eye-rolling (as opposed to the found footage concept as used in Cannibal Holocaust). Admittedly this type of footage is mixed up with other sorts of recordings, such as interview room tapings and Anna's narration to camera, so I assume what we're meant to be watching is a documentary made by Anna pulling together all these bits and pieces - except, it's not, because the film essentially jettisons this approach later on for a more straightforward cinematic narrative. It's confusing, and probably the film's biggest weakness - it can't work out what style it wants to imitate.
Still, we have many of the seemingly essential prerequisites for modern paranormal films checked off here: busty, attractive female lead in tight top (also see: House at the End of the Street, Mama, Silent House), the automatic tension generator (in Banshee it's this eerie music and child's speech that's delivered over radio), agonisingly-paced takes as the main protagonist shuffles from one room to another as if mired in tar, shock-tactic scares (unnerving cuts, dial the volume up, shove something centre-frame all of a sudden), and a framework that doesn't make much sense when you stop to think about it. There are, admittedly, a couple of nice shocks - cheap scares, yes, but they absolutely work - however once you start to understand the rhythm of the scares after the first few, they begin to lose impact (either that or you're just tired of them by the ninth obvious scare setup). Writer/director Blair Erickson tries his hardest to keep things unsettling by using weird sounds over shortwave radio - a creepy bit of 'ice cream van' music and a child's voice - and mixing the 'standard' scenes (which boast good cinematography) with black-and-white hospital footage. Whilst this faked footage breaks up some of the monotony, it doesn't always make sense. For example, there's an inconsistent use of HUDs and cues to suggest the source of the footage we're looking at - one moment Anna's driving along in a nice shot, and the next shot we see of her we get the visual identifiers on the screen like battery life indicator, suggesting we're now looking at her through her own video camera even though it's impossible from that angle.
Unfortunately a lot of the footage - not only of the 'found footage' inserts but of our principal cast doing their thing - screams "filler". You get the sense that there's an extremely strong half-hour short film in here, but that the director's added a lot of filler to pad the thing out to feature-length. Also, much of The Banshee Chapter feels directionless. Anne is following the trail of the government drug, but never in a way that suggests there's a definite trail of evidence. Maybe that feeling is merely a symptom of my not being a fan of these types of films (I lump this into the Ringu/Paranormal Activity/Insidious paranormal subgenre where not much happens other than people walking slowly between rooms) - I prefer my horror films being of the slice n' dice variety, or otherwise possess a disturbing and/or outrageous nature. Presumably, a fan of paranormal films will find more to appreciate in The Banshee Chapter. Thankfully, the film avoids introducing any creepy kids, which would have been one trope too many.
The cast do what they can with the limited material. Levine's clearly having a great time as the boozing, gun-toting Thompson-caricature, and he's always worth watching in anything, with that slow, distinctive drawl of his. Katia Winter as the journalist Anne Rowland doesn't bring much character to her role and is unable to infuse Rowland with much energy, but then again the role seems underwritten to begin with, so it's probably unfair to place much of the blame on her.Once again, I want to emphasise that some viewers will undoubtedly find The Banshee Chapter to be absolutely immersive and skin-crawling. Personally, I don't believe it truly gets under the skin like the very best horror movies such as The Exorcist, The Shining and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre do. The atmosphere of dread it so hopefully wants to conjure remains out of reach. That being said, The Banshee Chapter - terrible, off-putting title aside - certainly remains a solid if unspectacular entry into the paranormal horror genre, and is technically very proficient given that it is, what I assume to be, a fairly low budget film. For the undemanding viewer it's sure to captivate and sporadically thrill, but don't be surprised if you won't remember anything from it the next day.