While not a particularly ambitious horror, "The Banshee Chapter" is a solid example of a story accomplishing a lot with a little, nimbly out-punching its weight class. So far as the genre goes, the film is darkly lit by design (and budget), constantly flash cutting and flash-backing, never sticking with any scene or story arc too long. This places it clearly in the modern horror category, and within that realm "The Banshee Chapter" works on plenty of fronts. The places it stumbles? Understandable, and mostly forgiven.
Much as in "The Blair Witch Project", the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, or "Chronicle", "The Banshee Chapter" is told completely through the perspective of "found footage", complete with shaky-cam, and overt exposition by main characters. However, to its credit, it does have a little more real-world context, which helps ratchet up the fear factor to a respectable level. The relevant aspect here is the MKUltra program, a secretive CIA project that was found to have tested illegal drugs and torture methods on unwitting and unwilling patients. Through the Freedom of Information act more and more disconcerting facts have come to light about MKUltra, and "The Banshee Chapter" does well to open on the truthful aspects of the government's sinister endeavor before delving into the narrative of the film, tapping into real life to maximize emotional resonance in otherwise lightly sketched and broad characters.
Narratively, all of this ties in when Anne (Katia Winter) goes searching for answers about a friend's disappearance. She was a college pal with James (Michael McMillian) and the only clues to his fate are a weird letter and random chaotic footage of him trying a drug from the past, evidently synthesized by the government, which causes him to hear weird frequencies and become … something terrible. The only other character of note is Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine) who plays a guy modeled after Hunter S. Thompson, whiskey swilling, gun shooting, drug craving (and also Anne's only real clue to what happened to her friend). There are a few logic problems here, but they are of the normal horror/thriller variety, a la "why is she headed out to the middle of nowhere, all alone, in the middle of the night?" But c'mon, suspending disbelief and all that; it's not as though "The Banshee Chapter" is egregiously illogical, just the normal moderately so.
Where "The Banshee Chapter" thrives is the overwhelming claustrophobia of the film. It seems as if the whole project was shot with a depth of field of about four feet, as the majority of the movie is spent in hallways, looking at grainy black and white footage, or perhaps right beside a car or in an office. It makes perfect sense, given the scope of the film, and it truly helps with the mood. That said, it's also the greatest limitation of the movie, because you know the "boo" scares are coming your way, probably right around the next corner. In this manner, it's difficult for "The Banshee Chapter" to build legitimate tension – it's organic and unsettling, but not exactly horrifying because it's a bit like watching a movie while in a closet with your face pressed up to the screen. Without any attempt to pull back, to show a wider world, "The Banshee Chapter" can become an exercise in waiting, as opposed to intently watching.
Still, at a briskly paced 86 minutes, it would be unfair to completely dismiss the work, especially because much of it is at least as stylish as it is stifling, and it becomes clear about halfway through that new director Blair Erickson is immensely talented. With a few more dollars toward production, Erickson could rise in the echelon of directors in short order.
All in all, "The Banshee Chapter" has plenty going for it. It's moody enough to please fans of classic horror, and yet completely forward-thinking in its construction. Though not amazing, or featuring much in the way of re-watchability, this would be a respectable Friday night with friends, soaking up a few chills, pledging to each other never to head out to a remote location in the middle of the night alone.
SCORE: 6.5 / 10
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and never really leaves his house after 8pm.