BANSHEE CHAPTER, a psycho/supernatural chiller that marries elements of US military lore, the psychedelic counterculture, rogue journalism, fortean radio phenomenon, and the otherworldly fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, marks the filmmaking debut of co-writer/director Blair Erickson. Confident, atmospheric and smart, it’s a triumph of cerebral chills. It’s also messy, derivative and lacking in original scares.
Following the mysterious disappearance of her friend, who was investigating the potentially harmful effects of a drug used by the military in illicit trials, journalist Anne Roland (Katia Winter) is drawn into a world of strange radio broadcasts and government conspiracies, accompanied by burned-out cult writer and activist Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine)...
Part found footage, part not, BANSHEE CHAPTER doesn’t fit into any of the horror pigeonholes we’ve come to expect. It’s science-based, but also supernatural. Grounded in historical reality, it detours into dark alien realms. It’s based around a strong female character, but she isn’t being stalked by a knife/axe/chainsaw-wielding psychopath (and she’s comprehensively upstaged by her gruff, belligerent, hippy-with-a-heart-of-napalm co-star). The film is a hybrid, the kind of stylistic mishmash that sometimes works but usually doesn’t. In this case it works... mostly. Lovecraft (and, to a lesser extent, films like Stuart Gordon’s 1986 Lovecraft adaptation FROM BEYOND and Lucio Fulci’s thematically-similar 1981 schlock classic THE BEYOND) and the MKUltra research scandal aren’t obvious bedfellows, but somehow it works. Erickson’s ideas, while fragmented, come close to coalescing, and he’s a good writer with an excellent grasp of character (if Anne is somewhat bland and conventional, Blackburn is wonderfully eccentric). The director is an even better builder of mood, playing on (and subverting) our expectations of the found footage format, and seeding the narrative with both genuine archive news clips and manufactured footage indistinguishable from the real thing.
If Erickson’s energy and enthusiasm is evident in his inaugural effort, so is his inexperience. As much as there is to enjoy about BANSHEE CHAPTER, it never quite coheres. Undeniably creepy, the story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, and requires the kind of dizzying leaps of logic (or illogic) that are guaranteed to leave most audiences baffled. Not only doesn’t it make sense, it’s just not that scary. The idea is certainly chilling, and in places Erickson conjures a palpable sense of dread, but most of the time he choose to defuse it with obvious auditory-based jump scares that cheapen the carefully cultivated sense of intellectual horror. In keeping with the unconventional nature of the narrative, character arcs end when we least expect them and certain scenes feel disjointed and out of order. It adds to the trippy, real vs. unreal vibe of the story, but smacks of either laziness or clumsiness.
The performances from the two leads are strong, and production values are as high as they need to be. There’s little in the way of effects, which is to the film’s advantage, but when required they’re convincing. There’s little about the film that’s original, borrowing as it does from a wide variety of real life, literary and cinematic sources, not to mention some obvious ‘homages’ (Blackburn is Hunter S. Thompson by another name), but the way in which it assembles the disparate pieces is original. It manages to be clever without showing off, and to create a sense of dread predicated on ideas rather than monsters. Ultimately, however, BANSHEE CHAPTER is too fragmented and enigmatic, and too reliant on lazy, insipid jump scares, to live up to its potential.