Much like the zombie sub-genre of horror, I have grown weary of found footage films. I don’t discount the possibility of a great found footage movie, after The Battery restored my faith in the possibility of a great indie zombie film, but starting any film in this sub-genre begins with the roll of the eyes and a sigh that accompanies expectations established now in this well-worn category.
The Banshee Chapter begins using these found footage tropes. We see James (Michael McMillian, True Blood), a student researching the series of MK-ULTRA experiments of the 1950s and beyond, who has taken a mysterious substance called DMT, allegedly to replicate the same experiments conducted by the government. When he does, video recorded of him shows strange goings-on and a jump scare and then we are treated to opening credits. So goes the found footage template.
The film expands in scope after this, however, preferring to combine the found footage style with a more cinematic feel, giving The Banshee Chapter a tenuous-at-best categorization of found footage. Instead, it uses some of these familiar jump scare tactics to push along its narrative, as James’ friend, Anne (Katia Winter) searches for her lost friend. Along the way, her fate is entangled with that of gonzo novelist Thomas Blackburn (the always-welcome Ted Levine), who is an advocate of all things hallucinatory. When he and a young chemist take the drug, and said chemist goes missing, also, after what appears to be a break-in, they feel the presence of another entity that has seen them through the drug-induced perceptions. Hounded by this malevolent force, they must solve the riddle of the MK-ULTRA experiments, strange radio transmissions, and the fates of their friends.
At its best, The Banshee Chapter taps into Lovecraftian horrors, and the author is, in fact, name-checked by Levine’s Hunter S. Thompson-influenced character as he suggests that the DMT taken by test subjects and experimenters turns the brain into a receptor for visions beyond our dimension, which, in turn, allows them to see us. It’s familiar territory for Lovecraft readers, or just those who have managed to see the movie From Beyond (and you should!), but Banshee Chapter doesn’t quite go far enough down those creepy roads, instead providing an answer to the central mystery of the story which isn’t nearly as satisfying as the mystery that’s been propelling the story.
Still, The Banshee Chapter does some interesting things with its scares. The use of the so-called “number stations” is a nice touch, and provides a creepy background sound that indicates danger, in much the same way that static alerted a player to danger in the Silent Hill games. There’s also a very nice scare related to surveillance cameras that is worth the ride. When the movie goes for it, it manages to build some tension and deliver a few jumps that don’t feel cheap.
Katia Winter’s Anne is given some much-needed characterization as the film proceeds and we learn that her relationship with James may have leaned more towards romance than friendship, but it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, and that’s a good thing, too. Levine’s Blackburn is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose with its incorporation of Hunter Thompson’s legendary exploits, but Levine appears to be having some fun with the character and is genereally welcome in every scene, especially when the shit goes down and his character offers a completely appropriate response to the situation from hsi point of view.
While this isn’t going to make the list of anyone’s best movies ever made, it’s a solid pick for a genre fan looking for a well-paced and smartly-done horror/conspiracy film. There are a few moments I felt were cheats, and going more into detail on that account would spoil some of the later aspects of the film, but nothing so egregious as to stain the overall fun I had with this one. Don’t go in expecting perfection and you’ll find more treats than tricks here.