Movie Review – Banshee Chapter (2013)
Loosely based upon H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1934), 2013’s Banshee Chapter, the directorial debut of Blair Erickson, mixes elements both real and unreal to generate effective scares.
When an old college friend takes a mysterious chemical and goes missing, an investigative journalist named Anne goes in search of him and of the origins of the chemical. She eventually tracks down his supplier – a burnt-out, drug obsessed author named Thomas Blackburn, based upon Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and played brilliantly by horror icon Ted Levine. The plot throws in elements of the factual Project MKultra, which were illegal mind control experiments using human subjects carried out by the CIA from the 1950s into the 1970s, as well as the eerie nature of number stations – strange broadcasts heard on shortwave radios that often have repeating sounds or voices, usually of women but sometimes of men or children, reading numbers. Many of these are likely government transmissions meant to discourage others from using the frequency, but some have yet to be fully explained. Soon Anne and Blackburn are being followed by an otherworldly entity and are in a race against time to find the source before they succumb to it.
Lovecraft, MKultra, and number stations make a good stew. The scares are mostly predictable but they’re also mostly pulled off so well that they’re still effective. The transmission of the number station, which acts as a harbinger for the entity’s approach, is an unnerving soundtrack to the visuals on screen.
Ted Levine is the highlight of the film. He’s a bit like having Jeff Lebowski, AKA The Dude, in a horror film, yet he never devolves into being a mere cartoon version of that character, which in lesser hands he might have become. His Blackburn is sympathetic while maintaining enough mystery as to seem untrustworthy and potentially dangerous. He also manages to get all the good dialogue, like when he tells Anne: “People are afraid of death because it’s so fucking ordinary, it happens all the time.” Levine single-handedly elevates the movie to the point where he almost looks out-of-place within it.
While there are a few instances of found-footage in the film, mainly in the opening, this is not that kind of movie. Nevertheless, the director takes the found-footage approach, filming hand-held and moving with the actors as though he is another character in the film. At times this is distracting, but when the horror elements start it gives that unnerving sensation of a camera swinging and not knowing what its lens will land on.
Yet Banshee Chapter is not without its shortcomings. The plot is threadbare and, except for Blackburn, the characters are all two-dimensional. Even Anne gets no depth. The most we learn about her is her relationship to the missing friend, told only in a few flashback images, and her job. Also, as has been mentioned, despite being genuinely creepy the film is still predictable and borrows heavily from other films, such as The Ring (2002). It’s stuff we’ve seen before, but at least they’re doing it fairly well. Finally, the two twists at the end are rather absurd. The first makes no sense when one considers the effect it would have had over several decades and yet there’s no indication of it in the film, and the second is so obvious as to not be a twist at all.
Christopher Nolan was originally tied to making this film before deciding to do Interstellar (2014), and I can only imagine what he could have created with these strong ingredients already in place. As it is, Banshee Chapter is a film that is worth watching, especially in the dark, but it doesn’t warrant repeat viewings.