Switching it up a little this week, I watched a 2013 horror movie called The Banshee Chapter, by first time writer and director Blair Erickson. I tend to scare pretty easily, especially when jump scares are involved, and this definitely had plenty of that. It being part found footage film, there were a few of those nasty moments where the handheld camera ‘pans’ around wildly showing nothing, nothing, nothing and then *wham* loud noise and a brief glimpse of something extremely unpleasant. It’s cheap, I dislike it immensely, but it gets me every single time. It’s also an effective way of making your film scarier by having the audience expect similarly unpleasant surprises in otherwise harmless scenes. You could say that’s cheating and you’d have a point. I prefer horror movies or games that build tension by other means, which is why I have such admiration for Silent Hill 2 (a 2001 survival horror videogame by Konami). No jump scares, yet still so terrifying I could barely bring myself to finish it. Sadly, Erickson couldn’t quite figure out how to earn that kind of tension. He also couldn’t figure out whether he wanted to stick with the found footage angle. In the beginning there are a number of scenes where the shot has a battery level indicator and some other stuff plastered over it, but that’s dropped rather quickly for a more conventional approach. Inconsistent, yes, but not irredeemably so.
The Banshee Chapter stars Katia Winter and Ted Levine. Personally I would have gone for more Levine and less Winter had it been my film. But the two have a couple of entertaining exchanges once their paths cross about halfway in. Levine plays the role of writer Thomas Blackburn, which might be a reference to a writer or a poet by that name, but seems to be modeled mostly on Hunter S. Thompson. Like Thompson, Blackburn has a similar interest in firearms, alcohol, psychoactive drugs, lives way out in the desert and also (accidentally) shot his assistant at one point. Winter plays the part of investigative journalist Anne Roland. Roland is looking into the disappearance of James Hirsch (a friend from college) and while doing so, stumbles on the lingering effects of the now defunct government experiments with something called DMT19. The experiments were part of the MKULTRA project that researched behavioral engineering, through drugs and other chemicals, on (sometimes) unwitting US and Canadian citizens. (That also really happened apparently.) The Banshee Chapter just expands those events somewhat by including a Lovecraftian influence in the form of said author’s short story From Beyond, where a scientist’s manipulation of a human subject’s pineal gland allows those subjects to perceive other planes of existence. The only problem is, those planes can now also perceive you. Which is what Roland and Blackburn discover when they start dropping some of that special government grade acid.
Perhaps being under the influence also excuses them from doing utterly dumb shit like splitting up to have Roland go digging through a gloomy basement all by herself. They keep in radio contact though and when she’s looking at the footage from the security camera she goes: ‘Hey Thomas, I’m looking at the footage from the security camera and there’s this creepy looking chick limping down the stairs of the basement I’m in right now.’ It was then I thought to myself: ‘yeah no shit lady, if you look at the time stamp on the video there you’ll see that was a mere five minutes ago.’ Made for a fun scene though, I have to admit. Other than that, Levine and the Lovecraft angle are the main reasons you might want to see this. Otherwise it’s not quite that smart low budget horror film you’ve been looking for.