The golden age of horror: The Banshee Chapter (2013)

Chris:The Banshee Chapter is about mind-control, MKULTRA-like drug experiments. It’s a movie about numbers radio stations. It’s has Lovecraftian overtones. There’s found footage and briefly a documentary style narrative. It presents conspiracy theories and secret histories from crackpots, and then says they might not be so crazy after all. This is a big, wonderful shaggy mutt of a movie. It makes mistakes here and there that require a sympathetic viewer, but when it works–which is most of the time–it is enormously satisfying.

After the jump, when you’re innocent, you can get away with anything

Barac: Although the Netflix blurb pitches Banshee Chapter as a “true story”, the film itself notably makes no such claim. That said, it draws a significant part of its effectiveness from the clever interweaving of actual fact with extrapolated horrors. Project MKULTRA is a real thing that the CIA did in fact conduct back in the 1960s, and the movie includes real footage of interviews (and a speech by former president Bill Clinton) about it. DMT is a real drug. Number stations? Those are real too, although as far as we know they don’t have the origin that Banshee Chapter attributes to its particular station. They are certainly plenty otherworldly in feel, though, and their creep factor needs no exaggeration.

Chris: This is an incredibly effective setup, and the part that’s executed so damn well that I’m willing to forgive it when first-time director Blair Erickson loses his way a bit later on. That opening reveals that he’s going to be able to spin some favorite Art Bell late night radio conspiracy theories into a fairly coherent horror movie. When I realized that he was going to tie all of that in to a film that feels like an update to the short story “From Beyond”…well, Banshee Chapter had me at hello.

Barac: The other obvious source material here is HP Lovecraft – indeed, this is made explicit when Blackburn gives our heroine a brief synopsis of the relevant tale. They make a pretty natural fusion, though, one that’s eerily plausible and inherently horrifying. And it’s a welcome departure from the Lovecraft everyone else seems to reference, all tentacles and fishmen. Sure, batrachian was a favorite adjective of the man’s, but he had more range than that, guys!

Chris: “From Beyond” just feels like such a natural premise for a modern update (or at least one without lines like “It bit off his head…like a gingerbread man!” with apologies to Stuart Gordon). To bring in numbers stations and DMT and MKULTRA is just some inspired bit of writing. It feels so obvious and awesome when you realize that this is where the movie’s going, but kudos to Erickson for being the guy to realize that vision.

Barac: Beyond this pretty fantastic premise, I think there are two other things that sell the movie for me. Firstly, the backdrop – the largely empty desert wastes of the Southwest at night, an abandoned and indeed never populated suburban housing district, the weirdly decorated Blackburn ranch, and of course the classic repurposed fallout shelter – all part of a space that’s too big for the tiny handful of humans we see populating it. (Maybe it’s just the city boy in me talking, but that much empty darkness is unsettling…and very Lovecraft.) Secondly, Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill himself) as the grizzled and misanthropic counterculture writer Thomas Blackburn (undoubtedly inspired by Hunter S. Thompson, as so many characters have been). Ann’s a fine enough horror protagonist, but kind of bland. Blackburn is far more colorful, and when he gets freaked out, we know things are getting bad. It’s a heck of a performance, too – rumpled and weary, outsized but not hammy, with nice little grace notes of physicality (watch as he slings himself forward over the car hood as the two plan).

Chris: I think I liked Katia Winter–who plays Anne–a bit more than you, perhaps. She’s now seeing semi-regular screen time in a TV series called Sleepy Hollow, and she feels very much like someone going places in this. Her performance makes Anne believably smart and scared respectively at the right times, and neither her character or the script needs her to do stupid things to put her in danger or advance the plot. It must have been a real coup for the production staff here to first land her as the lead, and then get the aforementioned and amazing Ted Levine. Even better, there’s real chemistry between these two characters. I loved their interplay when they’re both putting one another on, for instance. It’s flirtatious and fun and feels like the way two smart people who are warily trying to determine the other’s motives would play it. I loved also the way Levine’s gonzo, Thompson-like character shows moments of obvious lucidity. It takes both us and Anne aback a bit, yet feels exactly like what a professional old booze hound and drug enthusiast would be capable of.


Barac: In the complaints department, I mostly have quibbles. You can definitely tell there’s not a lot of budget here. When we do get effects shots they’re not exactly convincing but at least, unlike Ju-On, Erickson knows better to linger on them. And I’m more than a little tired of solid black eyes as a creepout effect by now – not that it’s not kind of freaky, but it’s been used a heck of a lot already. Like I say, the lead’s a bit bland. And the first time I watched it, I seriously thought an ice cream truck had pulled up outside the house because that’s what the music on the number station sounds like to me. (It is kinda creepy still, though.)

Chris: There are some problems with the narrative here as well. The movie opens with Anne almost presenting it like a documentary. Later when she’s out in the desert to listen for the Lonely Traveler station, it has a found footage conceit going on. Eventually both of those points of view are abandoned, and the movie becomes a more familiar, omniscient camera film. I think some criticism has been leveled by a few viewers that The Banshee Chapter is a bit too reliant at times on jump scares. In fact, Tom Chick brought that up in his excellent interview with Blair Erickson earlier this year. I actually think those scares are necessary and help the film. This is a movie heavy on exposition and narrative. At its center is an investigation into a mystery. The jump scares keep us wound up tight into the film itself and remind us that Anne and everyone else is in real danger.

Beyond those things, I’d say my greatest quibble with The Banshee Chapter is likely a consequence of the small budget. I agree completely with Barac’s point that the movie is terrific about cutting away quickly from its monster scares before we can see the cracks in the foundation. What I’d have wanted was a bit better shooting/filtering work on the videotape footage of the experiments. They don’t feel 1973 at all, and we’re acutely aware that we’re watching a film conceit here. I’d love for a bit more care in the hairstyling and makeup, a bit more dated feel to the footage itself, something to make that footage feel more organically old-feeling. The last thing that kind of didn’t work for me here is a screenplay thing. For as much as I enjoyed the setup of Banshee Chapter, the final act felt as if it borrowed a bit too many elements from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (“It wants to wear us!”) and even The Ring (the whole “Once you’re exposed, you’re doomed” thing). Still, that all feels very minor to me. The Banshee Chapter is filled with so many great things, and does so many of them very well that it really is like the big family mutt that manages to be utterly endearing even if it does occasionally turn over a few trash cans.

Barac: I think there was some sort of implication that it’s being passed on by touch in the final quick flashback cuts, rather than exposure itself being the dooming factor. Not 100% sure about that, though, and I’m not sure if that necessarily would help with your issue.

Chris: Yeah, it’s definitely touch (and through shirts, even!) which I guess takes it beyond The Ring and into something more like a zombie plague style thing. In any event, it’s a little bit of borrowing that felt somewhat out of place here, but doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for this film and its director too much.

Barac: I don’t want to close without giving props to the music, particularly Mark Lenover’s fantastic “Girl in the Window”, which is used to excellent effect in one of the climactic scenes and provides a suitably creepy sendoff over the credits to boot.

Chris: Yep, totally agree. We’ve had a run on them of late, and here’s another movie that makes good use of music. One other piece to add is that I believe that Erickson used actual recordings of a numbers station that plays the Swedish Rhapsody taken from the wonderfully weird Conet project–an archival piece of work that collects numbers stations broadcast loops and packages them onto compact disc and digital formats.

(The Banshee Chapter is available to stream for Netflix subscribers. It can also be purchased or rented from the usual VOD outlets. Support Qt3 by buying it from Amazon using the link on this page!)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)