In the UK, by far the biggest event in the horror calendar is the ‘Film4 Frightfest’ held annually over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Each year the great and the good assemble for a range of horror-themed events as well as the obligatory screenings of genre movies old and new. Running since 2000, the event has been the UK Launchpad for a broad range of excellent horror movies – ‘Oldboy’ in 2004, Adam Green’s throwback ‘Hatchet’ in 2006, Jonathan King’s criminally underrated ‘Black Sheep’ in 2007, the brilliant ‘Tucker & Dale vs Evil’ in 2011, and the Soska’s wonderful ‘American Mary’ in 2012 to name but a few. As it has grown, it could be argued that the event is making greater efforts to attract a more mainstream, casual audience but, with little else on a similar scale for UK-based genre fans, it remains the holy grail of Anglo-fandom. The advantage for indie filmmakers of being accepted to ‘Frightfest’ is obvious; such is its reach now that any movie is essentially guaranteed for pick up by a distributor, and many hitherto unknown low-budget movies are released with much fanfare as a result. Unfortunately, for every ‘You’re Next’, ‘Kill List’ or ‘Maniac’, there are also a growing number of movies undeserving of the attention they get. Bearing quotation from Dread Central proclaiming it “enthralling, enjoyably scary and very well crafted” and with the much vaunted ‘Total Film’s Scariest Movie Award at Frightfest 2013’ comes ‘Banshee Chapter’.
The plot closely follows the efforts of young investigative journalist Anne Roland to track down her long term friend James when he vanishes in mysterious circumstances. Uncovering his research into US government conspiracies involving the pharmaceutical abuse of patients and the MKUltra program, she begins to uncover worrying connections. When her investigation ultimately leads her to drug-addled writer Thomas Blackburn, the line that separates reality from fiction becomes increasingly blurred. As the two follow the MKUltra rabbit hole down more and more sinister avenues, Anne begins to realise that she is in real danger, that the fate of her friends may well have been terminal, and that the chemical conspiracy may in fact have origins with far reaching consequences for the entire human race.
The concept behind ‘Banshee Chapter’ is a simple one; someone dabbling in things they don’t understand goes missing and their friend decides to find them, often with tragic results. It is a path so well-trodden that the end can, with reasonable certainty, be predicted from almost the very beginning. At the heart of the piece though is an idea that, despite being covered in various forms for many years, is worth exploring; the consequences of government interference with things beyond reason, and the naivety of those who seek to expose the truth. It is without doubt a central conceit that deserves a better film than this. The script is essentially a two person piece- reporter Anne and aging hippy burnout Blackburn – but it gives neither of them anything beyond the most vague characterisation. There is the occasional moment where it almost peels away its superficial layers to reveal real people underneath – a potentially complicated past between Anne and missing friend James for example – but then quickly abandons it before it goes anywhere. In fact, it seems that the characters more thoughtful intimate moments, those essential to making an audience care about them or the movie in general, are used simply as a pause before something else blurrily jumps out of the darkness. Ah, the jump scare – more on that in a second… To round it out, the ending makes little sense as no effort is put in to establishing what is really happening; gaps in logic are infinitely easier to swallow in the more light-hearted, silly end of the genre market but for one marketed as ‘true’ , straight horror, it feels ill-judged and all rather convenient. Galling still further is that the film purports to be an adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’, the basis for Stuart Gordon’s classic genre film of the same name back in 1986. Comparison with Lovecraft’s, and by association Gordon’s, work is actively invited by ‘Banshee Chapter’ – one character references the short story in a particularly clumsy piece of dialogue – but this only serves to highlight the film’s flaws still further. There are minor similarities in the use of sound waves to induce contact with alternate dimensions but, in its po-faced approach and lack of technical quality, it bears no resemblance to Gordon’s work which interpreted the source in an infinitely more fun and manic manner, throwing in the director’s trademark outrageous gore for good measure. ‘Banshee Chapter’ bears poor witness to Lovecraft’s writing too and has somehow managed to avoid its creepy atmosphere and gothic sensibilities in favour of a story updated almost identically, and more competently, by ‘The X-Files’ in the Nineties.
Aside from a weak and under-developed script, by far the biggest issues with ‘Banshee Chapter’ are technical. The movie represents the debut feature from director Blair Erickson and, judging by what is onscreen, his lack of experience is obvious. The biggest problem is the camera work. Beginning with an interesting device – the inclusion of real documentary footage of senate hearings, eyewitness testimony, and Presidential decrees about MKUltra – and then folding in the found footage trope is an interesting conceit. I have no issues with found footage; I understand the reservations people have with the format and, whilst there are an awful lot of poor examples, it is entirely possible to make an atmospheric and creepy genre film using it. Unfortunately, it seems Erickson lacks the courage of his convictions in this regard; he quickly abandons the found footage motif and the majority of Anne’s story is told in a more conventional manner. Bizarrely however, the audience is left to work this out themselves as the director’s camera uses all the same techniques as the found footage segments; both the found footage and third person sequences are so rife with trite shaky-cam, out-of-focus shots, lengthy pointless shots of nothing in particular, that it is a disorientating and, honestly, bizarre experience. Without doubt, the movie would have been improved by being solely found footage; the personal angle this provides would have allowed room for Anne’s character to develop sympathetically and poor camera work would have been easier to cope with. By pitching ‘Banshee Chapter’ as a more conventionally framed piece, Erickson’s movie comes across as being lazy and amateur. The lighting is also demonstrably from the found footage stable too and, whilst it keeps everything visible as far as is necessary, the same reservations prevail; the film uses these tropes in a film that is not ostensibly found footage, giving the whole thing a cheap, amateur feel.
On a similar theme, there is the occasional jumpy moment in ‘Banshee Chapter’. During quiet moments in the script, blaring noises followed by a glimpse of something just out of focus provide the majority of the scares here; as a technique for making any audience jump it is an effective, but hollow, one. The scares are not earned and are not remotely frightening; in much the same way as a ringing telephone in the middle of the night creates a jump, so it goes here. For real genre fans, the ones to whom any serious horror movie should be trying to appeal, this is a real problem. Such an interesting concept explored using a familiar, if quite hoary, plot could well earn some legitimate thrills. Resorting to the ‘Paranormal Activity’-esque ‘silence followed by loud noise’ is lazy and does a disservice to the material. ‘Banshee Chapter’ does to some extent try to excuse this device – people are being influence by screechy shortwave radio signals after all – and it does temper it to a degree; at least it does try to give an explanation for the jarringly loud noises. There are some decent special effects here, all largely computer generated, that are reasonably effective; it would have been nice if some effort had been made into making them look more consistently different however. Some creatures look suitably otherworldly, akin to The Infected in Rockstar’s excellent ‘The Last of Us’, whereas others are almost exact replicas of the Sadako victims in ‘Ringu’.
The cast is broadly made up of the two main characters; Anne played by Katia Winter, and Blackburn played by the ever-reliable Ted Levine. Both acquit themselves well with the bones they are given to work with, Winter being assuredly strident and strong throughout, and Levine elevating the one-note role of drug-addled burnout to a level beyond the film’s merit. In fact, with such strong performers, the ineptitude and wispy nature of Erickson’s script is brought into even sharper focus, and the audience is left wondering how good ‘Banshee Chapter’ could have been in more capable hands.
Evidently, there are real issues with horror writing in the UK. Different views are available, and the debate about those differences is where the fun is to be had on social media, but to describe ‘Banshee Chapter’ as “well crafted” and “scary” suggests two possibilities; a complete lack of understanding of horror movies, their structure, and their history, or an attempt at self-promotion via box quotations. Whichever is the case, no serious horror fan could agree with those statements, as they are patently not true. Others may find more to like in ‘Banshee Chapter’, and that is fine, but I suspect that even the more charitably minded would fail to find scares here. Even more depressing is the Total Film award it garnered at last year’s ‘Frightfest’ – an event that screened ‘Big Bad Wolves’, ‘You’re Next’, ‘Curse of Chucky’, ‘Cheap Thrills’, ‘Contracted’, ‘Willow Creek’, ‘Paranormal Diaries: Clophill’ and ‘The Borderlands’, amongst others – as the scariest movie. ‘Banshee Chapter’ is poorly made, narratively basic, reliant on the laziest of jump scares, and wasteful of both a good cast and an interesting idea. Regardless of what the sleeve may have you believe, it is not scary, not well crafted, and the fact that it won an award in the UK of any kind, let alone at our flagship annual gathering, is a damning indictment of the way the mainstream media seem to view the genre in this country.
1.5 / 5
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