Banshee Chapter (2013)
Dir. and written by Blair Erickson
Starring Katia Winter, Michael McMillian, Ted Levine
This weird, quasi-found-footage cheapie (it starts out as explicitly found footage, but then the rest is shot the same way even though there’s no one actively filming) mixes conspiracy thriller with Lovecraft and a dash of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and comes out with something which is less than a sum of its parts but is nonetheless kind of interesting and effective.
Our protagonist is Anne (Katia Winters, Dexter season 7), a nice young lady who decides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her old friend James (Michael McMillian) after he leaves behind a found-footage mess explaining that he’s taken experimental drugs and that something is coming for him. Her research leads her to a mysterious numbers station broadcasting creepy calliope music all the time (is this really what our tax dollars pay for? My god, Grover Norquist was right!), secret government MKUltra experiments from the 60s, hidden desert labs in abandoned fallout shelters, mind-snatching ultradimensional conspiracies, and a mysterious countercultural novelist named Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine, NOWHERE TO RUN, also I guess SILENCE OF THE LAMBS if you want to get technical).
It’s a pretty cool idea for a horror/thriller, but a lot of the payoffs here are pretty disappointingly conventional. Nearly every horror scene in the movie is built around the same tiresome found-footage gimmick where people slowly walk around seeing nothing and then suddenly they catch a glimpse of a scary face or something, there’s a loud musical sting and then the camera starts shaking around everywhere as everyone runs for cover. Effective, admittedly, but a little unambitious and unimaginative for something with such a weird plot. There’s a nice incorporation of real-life conspiracy stuff (mysterious radio broadcasts, MKUltra, COINTELPRO-like disinfo campaigns) but despite a comfortably slow build, almost nothing is really expounded upon in any meaningful or interesting way, they’re just name-checked and then we move on to something else. For a super-secret multi-pronged conspiracy that stretches back decades, it’s also remarkably easy for a plucky young blonde to uncover on her own without any serious research. Usually to uncover a conspiracy you gotta spend agonizing hours going through yellowed government records; here, you just have to drive to the place where the conspiracy is and you’ll see it. Boy, how come no one thought to do that sooner?
Even so, the film has a weird sense of unease about it. It’s not really justified by the filmmaking or anything, but I think the mix of drug movie, conspiracy thriller and Lovecraftian horror is simply too potent and strange to really entire shrug off, even when the actual specifics are a little threadbare. Even though the scares themselves are run-of-the-mill, the tone and the locations (isolated Colorado deserts at night) are unusual enough that it sort of works, it sucks you in for awhile and builds to an effective paranoid patter. The long wait for the scare actually works, even if the scare itself doesn’t*. In that sense it actually gets right what most adapters of Lovecraft bungle: creating a fear of the unknown, a fear that whatever the fuck this is, it’s bad bad bad in a way you may not be ready to handle. Lovecraft usually didn’t really describe the horrors in his books either, leaving your imagination to fill in the details. This one sort of gets that, and to some degree reproduces it visually with its inky black spaces full of malicious potential, occasionally punctuated by a fleeting glimpse of some unnamable horror.
|Gaaaah! It's... something!|
Various internet sources claim the movie is specifically based on Lovecraft’s The Beyond, (already adapted by Stuart Gordon into a delightful body-dysmorphia horrorshow in 1986) and there are some similar ideas, though it seems like a stretch to call it a direct adaptation.** As far as I noticed, neither Lovecraft nor his story are explicitly credited on-screen, but the vibe is definitely there. In fact, it probably ranks among the very best Lovecraft-inspired films, not that it really has a ton of competition in that regard. It’s less successful as a drug movie; although drugs are a big part of the plot, the actual filmmaking is resolutely literal and as a result can’t do much with the intriguing concept of altered perception in the midst of horror. Someday someone will make the great American Drug movie/horror movie hybrid that I prophesied in my ALYCE KILLS review, but this isn’t it. Oh well, at least it’s trying.
|It doesn't seem very scary now, but what if it suddenly appeared out of the blue, accompanied by a sudden loud noise, and then the camera freaked out and shook around a whole bunch. You'd be losing your shit, my friend.|
There are a few moderately effective setpieces as the finale looms, and even a few pretty nifty-looking creature effects (though of course you can’t see much of them thanks to the faux-found footage camerawork). But by far the best thing about the movie actually has nothing to do with ultradimensional conspiracies or Lovecraftian horrors. The best thing turns out to be Ted Levine doing an absolutely delightful Hunter S. Thompson impersonation. Oh, his character is named “Blackburn,” but it’s so nakedly and so accurately Thompson that you can’t help but love it. Levine may even top Johnny Depp’s classic take on the famed gonzo journalist, matching Depp in eccentricity but adding a touch of Thompson’s Southern Gentlemanly charm as well.
This brings us to an odd question, because although Levine’s performance is far and away the best thing in the movie, I’m not sure it should be there. Like Guy LaPoint in TUSK, this broad, funny characterization feels like a very odd --if not out and out irreconcilable-- mix with the otherwise serious conspiracy thriller. I’m conflicted about how well it works; on one hand, it’s hugely entertaining, but on the other it’s also a huge, weird distraction in a movie which is already a little overpacked with different ideas and directions. The movie is otherwise absolutely grim, making Levine’s lively and comic performance a welcome relief but also a dismaying tonal shift. Levine seems to find the right tone in his performance to bridge the gap, but it’s unquestionably a weird idea that sometimes at the very least teeters near total disaster. The world is definitely better off for having this performance, but I’m not sure the movie is.
|We can't stop here. This is hat country.|
Still, for all my gripes, this is a pretty good one. If I’m hard on it it’s because it’s so close to being a genuine classic that it’s a little disappointing that it can’t quite make it. It’s an honest attempt, though, and despite any missteps it manages to take a really cool idea and pull it off even with what must be a torturously low budget. If this guy Blair Erickson can hire an actual cameraman next time, I think he may well have what it takes to make some real honest-to-god scary films. Or at least a better version of The Rum Diaries. Maybe with a dash of PREDATOR or something thrown in there just for fun. Boy, I’m obviously against ultradimensional mind-control conspiracies, but when ya type a sentence like “The Rum Diaries meet PREDATOR” I gotta admit, it’s hard not to see the appeal.
PS: The poster for this one claims: “From the producer of MARGIN CALL.” Kinda weird to assume there’s a ton of crossover of people who loved MARGIN CALL and also would be interested in a found-footage Lovecraftian conspiracy thriller with drug elements, but that’s technically true. The weirder part, though, is the producer they’re referring to is Zachary Quinto! You know, that new Spock who instead of being like old Spock is sexy and angry all the time! Guess he’s putting that STAR TREK money to good use as penance for being part of such a desperate cash grab. But hey, if he keeps producing movies this interesting, I’ll forgive him for it.
PPS: Wow, apparently this is the first movie ever to have an Oculus Rift Virtual Reality edition. I could really see it working for this one, since the virtual reality element would sit nicely with the otherwise unexplained point-of-view footage and really immerse you in the action. When I get an Oculus Rift in 20 years or whenever they become affordable, I’ll totally check this out again!
*Which --counterintuitively-- is arguably better than the inverse, because you’re going to spend way more time in the buildup than you ever will the payoff.
**It also hilariously bills itself as a true story, presumably because there was such a thing as MKUltra (by that same logic, Seagal’s SUBMERGED and SHADOW MAN are also true stories).