Monday, January 20, 2014

The Banshee Chapter: The Sum Of A Bunch Of Parts

For me, a big part of what interests me in horror is premise. A good premise can scare the shit out of you before you even read the story or watch the movie. I remember my father describing the basic premise of Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado to me as a 10-year-old child, and the idea scared me so much that it was years before I could bring myself to read the story. The opening title card to The Blair Witch Project gave me the same chill. A strong enough idea sets the stage for the story itself. It's not always necessary, but it can be attractive. And I have weaknesses for specific types of stories - secret histories, utterly unknowable forces from beyond space and time, and people investigating mysterious events among them. So when a story whose premise touches on all of those things, using real-world events as a touchstone comes along, I am there.

Unfortunately, The Banshee Chapter, in its inability to commit to a narrative approach or a coherent story, squanders an excellent premise.

It is nominally the story of journalist Anne Roland, who is looking into the mysterious disappearance of her college friend, struggling writer James Hirsch. James was writing a book about the aftermath of a series of clandestine government drug trials, and in the course of his research managed to obtain a sample of one of the drugs used. As foolish young people are wont to do, he has a friend of his videotape him while he tries the drug (a powerful hallucinogen), and it starts off as a pretty mild trip - James hears some weird sounds, okay fine - before things begin getting very weird. James sees mysterious figures watching him, approaching his house. The radio starts playing some sort of strange sequence of tones - tones his friend can hear as well. Then a figure flashes by the camera, and all is chaos.

Chaos that ends with a stuttering, noisy image of James, his face slack and deathly white, eyes totally black, mouth streaming with blood. And then he's gone.

What Anne discovers in the course of her research is that once upon a time, the U.S. government did a series of experiments with different hallucinogens in an effort to discover some kind of mind control drug they could use in interrogation and counterespionage. At least one of these substances had a curious effect - everyone who took it saw the same thing, and felt like something was watching them back. Something went terribly wrong, and the research was buried. It appears as though James got in touch with some people who had dug it back up again, and this leads Anne on a trip down the rabbit hole, as she becomes involved with some very strange people, and sees some very strange things, suggesting that something is watching us from just beyond our perception, perception that can be shifted by just the right alteration in brain chemistry. So we've got secret science, horrors from beyond reality, and people who live on the fringes of everyday life, changed by the terrible knowledge they have. This is the sort of premise that gets me on board right away. Unfortunately, the execution of this premise fails on multiple levels.

The problems begin with how the movie leaps from one narrative conceit to another - it opens with an establishing title card, and then cycles through actual archival footage, (obviously) faked archival footage, modern found-footage home recordings, all of which finally shifts to a conventional narrative style, all within the first three minutes of the movie. There's no central framing device - there's voiceover at the beginning from the protagonist as if this is all being told in retrospect, but given the events of the movie, that doesn't make sense. One character is introduced through 1970s-style retrospective footage, like we're watching a docudrama, even though we aren't. There's footage of old experiments scattered throughout the film to no apparent purpose, because it's established early on that Bad Shit Happened, and revealing what happened bit by bit doesn't actually add any new information to the overall story. Everything we see in these experiments is either supported by earlier scenes or doesn't add any specific information - just "whoo, this was some weird shit." Which we already know. There's one bit at the end that's supposed to be a surprise, I guess, but it's heavily foreshadowed, doesn't really add anything meaningful to the story, and isn't really a reversal or reveal of anything surprising. Scenes throughout the rest of the movie hop from being shot in a conventional omniscient style to being shot from a found-footage style using phone cameras for no apparent reason, sometimes shifting within a single scene. It draws from about three or four different styles of storytelling, but never establishes a rationale for doing so, and this distracts from engagement in the story instead of enhancing it. There's just too much going on cinematically,  so it feels less like a story and more like a bunch of scenes from two or three different movies spliced together on accident.

This piling-on extends to the actual story as well - you've got government drug studies (that really happened), a hallucinogen which provides its users with what feels like a window into an alien world (and is a real drug), and mysterious shortwave radio stations broadcasting cryptic combinations of numbers for no discernible reason (and really exist), but the whole thing lacks a central narrative thesis. Is it about the studies? Is it about this drug? Is it about these mysterious broadcasts? Is it about the mysterious disappearance of this one young man? It ends up being about the mysterious disappearance, but by the time it gets to that point we've already been told about the drug studies and the weird drug, as well as being told outright that the people who took this drug saw something horrifying and traumatizing, so there aren't really any surprises left. The mysterious broadcasts barely figure in at all, and feel shoehorned in as a result. The whole thing feels like it's supposed to be a "person investigating this mysterious thing goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole and things get weirder and weirder" story, but everything's pretty much laid out up front, so it's less a journey into the heart of darkness, and more just this person discovering a bunch of stuff we already know. It's not necessarily a problem that the audience has information the characters don't, but in this type of story, you really need the audience to find out stuff along with the characters for it to be effectively scary. There's little to no horror in discovery as a result - oh, sure, some of the details are kind of creepy, but they're revealed haphazardly, and at a point when everything's already sort of going to hell and we know bad shit is happening, so their impact is largely lost.

As if the general narrative incoherence isn't bad enough, the story itself lacks internal consistency. I don't like nitpicking over plot holes or inconsistencies, it feels less like actual criticism and more like a way to appear smarter than the filmmakers. However, if the holes are big enough to take me out of the story, to break my engagement in the moment, then that's a problem. Why does the drug also affect people who haven't taken it? Why is James' friend getting the hard sell from the cops when there's videotaped evidence exonerating him in his friends' disappearance? (And we know there's videotaped evidence because we've seen it.) Why did James' friend also disappear, and why doesn't anyone mention this fact until the end of the movie? Why doesn't Anne recognize "Friends From Colorado" as the title of a book when she's familiar with the author and his work (as she should be, as both she and James were writers)? Anne is supposed to be a journalist, but she has absolutely none of the skepticism or savvy you'd expect of one, and makes really bad decisions not just in all of the places people make bad decisions in horror movies, but also in places where we have every reason to believe that she knows better. It goes way beyond "why aren't these people behaving as perfectly rational actors" territory and into "wait, that actually doesn't make sense" territory, and that further disrupts immersion in the story. At the very beginning, James suggests that the frightening experiences some people have had after taking the drug informs the name of "the chapter" (hence the title), but it's never made clear to what he's referring - is it a chapter of his book? And what do banshees have to do with it? It's a small thing, but it's teased and then never paid off, which contributes to the overall lack of narrative focus.

This lack of believability isn't helped by the acting and dialogue either - people in this movie are exposition generators to a distracting extent. There's a character whose entire purpose in the story is to explain what numbers stations are - and nothing else. He shows up in one scene, tells Anne what numbers stations are, Anne quizzes him about his work for the NSA, he clams up, and he never shows up again. People don't talk to each other in this movie, they tell each other things, if that distinction makes sense. Anne even says stuff out loud when she's alone that nobody ever says out loud when they're alone because it is apparently necessary for us to know these things, and for whatever reason, they aren't communicated through action. The tendency to tell instead of show becomes so literal as to have a character describe the H.P. Lovecraft story From Beyond to another character, when the point of the film is to tell a very similar story. The filmmakers had so little confidence in or connection to their own material that they actually had one of their characters say in essence "hey, this is like this one scary story - scary, huh?" You make a story Lovecraftian by dealing with similar themes or imagery, not by name-dropping H.P. Lovecraft. You couldn't get more "telling" instead of "showing" if you tried.

There are some suitably spooky settings - the house of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque writer/drug casualty, abandoned stretches of McMansions, empty deserts, an old fallout shelter - but they largely go squandered because most of the movie ends up being the protagonist wandering through really dark places with a flashlight, pretty much so that when she turns to shine her light someplace, there can be something standing there that wasn't there before. Most of the horror in this movie ends up being jump scares - sudden appearances of things where there was nothing before, accompanied by some kind of musical sting. Used sparingly, they can be effective, but that's all there is here, used to the point of punctuation. Any given scene in this movie ends up being dialogue, foreshadowing, jump scare, cut to next scene. There's little atmosphere or mood, because we can't really see anything, and everything feels like setup for something icky to pop up out of nowhere. After the first couple of times, it gets tedious and irritating.

And that's finally what's most disappointing to me about The Banshee Chapter, because all of the right parts are there. You've got horrifying science, bizarre drug experiences, and mysterious messages - all of which could be used to tell a story about the secret history of the world (and I am a total sucker for those sorts of stories). You have someone investigating a mystery that brings her into contact with increasingly stranger people and discovering increasingly more horrifying things (and I am a total sucker for those sorts of stories as well) and leads to the realization that there is something out there in the dark, just beyond the veil of reality, waiting for us (which is a very Lovecraftian idea, and yep, total sucker for those sorts of stories as well). This is the perfect premise for a slow-burn story of cosmic horror, where things don't feel quite right and feel even less right as the story goes on until the full weight of implication crashes in on the protagonist (and by extension us) and the true scope of how wrong everything is is revealed. It could be a trip down the rabbit hole into the strange subcultures still lurking in forgotten corners of the country, digging up ugly secrets which in turn hint at even worse lurking in the dark beyond. That it's all based on stuff that actually happened is just absolute cake. There's so much potential here, but the presentation is so slapdash in its cinematography, staging, plotting, and writing that much of what's naturally scary about the material is lost. Instead of a story about the strange secrets stashed in abandoned places, and the horrors to which they point, all we get is halfhearted nods to those things through scattershot exposition, in between the same old interchangeable boogeymen jumping out of the same old interchangeable dark.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Unvailable from Netflix

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