Monday, May 5, 2014

How I Would Have Done It: The Banshee Chapter

(What I'd like to do in my How I Would Have Done It posts is examine a movie that I think didn't live up to its potential and, well, talk about how I would have done it if I'd been the writer or director. Mostly because just leaving it at "that was dumb" or "that sucked" is kind of unsatisfying, especially when there was something really good buried in there somewhere. I'll be discussing story elements in detail, so all kinds of spoilers await.)

The Banshee Chapter is one of those movies that looks great on paper. It's a story of cosmic horror based on a synthesis of history and real-life phenomena. Weird drugs, ethically bereft government research, mysterious broadcasts, all pointing toward something strange peering back at us from across the veil of reality. It begins with a journalist investigating the strange circumstances around the disappearance of an old college buddy, and the more she discovers, the deeper the rabbit hole goes, until she's immersed in the secret history of one of the darkest periods in American history, and the horrible price we have paid (and continue to pay) for our curiosity.

Or, at least that would be the case if the whole enterprise weren't dragged down by a pervasive narrative incoherence. The Banshee Chapter has a very hard time settling on the story it wants to tell and how it wants to tell it, and the end result is enough of a mess to undo the goodwill engendered by a strong premise. As such, if I were going to make the movie, a lot of things I’d focus on would have to do with streamlining the narrative and giving it a much clearer focus.

Pick A Perspective

The film begins with a barrage of imagery intended to ground the story in history and verisimilitude, but this approach ends up working against itself because our perspective shifts so many times in a matter of minutes that any attempt at mood or atmosphere is scuttled before it even has a chance. Is it a found-footage film? Is it a third-person narrative? Who can tell? There's actual archival footage, badly faked archival footage, videotape, camera-phone footage and conventional third-person footage, but it's not formally presented as a collection of different sources of information (e.g., The Bay), so it feels more like they just did any shot with whatever happened to be lying around at the time. That some of the purportedly archival footage (especially the government test footage) is obviously faked disrupts our investment in the story, and the whole point of archival or found footage is to lend a sense of realism. If it doesn't do that, it's not just superfluous, it's bringing the film down. It's one thing to use different filming styles to convey a mood, but the cinematic restlessness on display here is downright distracting.

So the first thing I'd do before anything else is pick a filming style and stick to it. Found-footage stories are tricky enough to tell as it is without breaking the narrative conceit, let alone dealing with the inherent subjectivity of a hallucinogenic drug, so I'd ditch the phone-camera footage and the majority of the archival stuff. It ends up being more distracting than anything else and as it's presented in the film - as interstitials between other stuff - doesn't really help move the story forward. A typical third-person perspective works absolutely fine for this sort of story, with some videotape/archival stuff presented within the context of the third-person style (as being viewed by the protagonist, in other words) to illustrate specific story beats. It'll also help keep a tighter control on mood and setting, which outside of the premise is one of the film's biggest strengths. There are some great set-pieces (or potential for set-pieces) in this movie - Anne all alone in her car in the desert at night, listening to cryptic, barely-received broadcasts, conversations with an outlaw writer, thick with menace in his isolated house, Anne creeping through clandestine drug labs in underpopulated suburban developments, finding evidence of terrible government experiments, Anne in the yawning dark of an old military bunker, one that looks like it was hastily deserted decades ago in the wake of some terrible accident. These are great, and every time our point of view switches to a phone camera or jumps away to some poorly post-produced fake government footage, the sense of dread evaporates.

Keep It Simple

The narrative instability extends itself to the characters and internal logic of the film itself. Anne Roland is the protagonist - she's the one we follow through the whole film, but there's also James' friend who videotaped him taking the drug, there's Anne's boss, there's the guy who is only the film long enough to explain numbers stations to Anne and serves no other purpose. These are mostly distractions. This is the story of Anne's journey into darkness, and the fewer people she has in her orbit, the better. Periodic phone conversations easily take the place of any time spent talking to her boss, the friend doesn't play enough of a role that he couldn't just be removed in favor of James videotaping himself (and this tidies up a pretty egregious loose end regarding the friend's purported culpability for James' disappearance in the process), and the guy who explains numbers stations isn't necessary at all - there's no reason to explain numbers stations within the context of the film. It can just as easily be something Anne discovers in searching through James' effects - a series of frequencies jotted down in a notebook would do the job just as well, with the fact that they are real things adding extra-textual creepiness to the whole affair. The less contact Anne has with anyone else, the fewer other people we need to think about, the easier it is to immerse her in the mounting horror of discovery, the realization that she's all alone out in the dark.

This simplicity needs to extend to the way the threat in the film is expressed, as well. The basic idea is that there are things beyond the boundary of our senses - plausible enough, given the very real limits placed on our five senses and the means we have to interpret sense data - and taking DMT expands our senses enough that we are able to apprehend these things. Again, that DMT is a real drug that does seem to produce the same hallucination in everyone who takes it just makes it extra-creepy, although here a little explanation - as justification for this drug over others - might very well be in order. The realization, then, is that these things are watching us, and that they occasionally use us for their own purposes. This is about as complicated as it needs to get, I think. There's a lot of talk in the movie about these creatures "wearing" us, but that invites an explanation as to why, and suggests that using DMT makes it easier for them to possess you, but I think that ends up being sort of a narrative dead end. So creatures from beyond reality occasionally possess us for reasons, so what? It's no fun for the people who are possessed, sure, but it threatens to shift the focus of the film from one woman's dawning awareness of the world's terrible machinery to a sort of half-assed alien invasion, and that's not horror.

So rather than the transmitter-receiver analogy for possession used in the film, I'd shift it back to just making the drug a way to see what is always there, but hidden from us. The creatures we cannot see have their own reasons for doing what they do and it is impossible for us to understand them. People disappear mysteriously all the time, strangers vanish every day. All this drug does is show us where they went and maybe what took them there. When Anne gets dosed, she sees - wrecked, ruined, twisted shells of humanity, wandering dark and empty places just out of the range of human sense. Perhaps some twisted, incomprehensible things in the corner of her eyes, but mostly just broken, forgotten humanity, screaming back at the world from the other side of a wall penetrable only by an artificially expanded consciousness.

Making the drug a vehicle for new sight instead of possession also cleans up some of the messier inconsistencies in the story - you have to take the drug to be possessed, but at the end of the film, Anne's boss is possessed even though there's no indication she ever took the drug, and it's never made clear whether Anne ever took the drug or not, and if so why she is never possessed. The Hunter Thompson-analogue character was given heroic doses of this drug back in the Sixties and has resisted possession until now…why? Audience attention gets diverted into trying to figure out a messy and inconsistent set of "rules" for possession, and that's not scary, it's distracting. Make it simple: People who take the drug can see things others can't, and can't not see those things. So this is a story about Anne, who goes in search of information, and gets more information than she ever wanted, in the worst possible way. She wanted to understand, as journalists do, and now she does. That's a fairly straightforward story, but because it's told through the idea of seeing, it has all kinds of possibilities as a film.

It's The Mystery, Stupid

The next problem is how we learn what's going on in the film. A good mystery doles out information a little bit at a time, each new revelation adding a little bit to what came before until we put two and two together and get oh shit. There are a bunch of moving pieces here - a drug that makes you see things that appear to see you right back, mysterious broadcasts of cryptic data, sketchy clandestine government drug research - and it's all thrown at us within the first 15 minutes of the opening credits. Puking all of this stuff up at the beginning of the movie robs it of the very mystery it needs and makes it hard for the audience to find their way into the story. It's information overload and gives away the game so that the rest of the movie isn't so much "what's going on?" and more "when is she going to find out this thing that I already know?" So it's important to tell the story in a particular order, to reveal the information gradually and create an escalating sense of threat and dawning realization that it's much, much worse than Anne originally thought.

If I were to pick a way into the story, I'd say that James' disappearance makes the most sense. It's not an everyday occurrence, but I think it's something with which most people could connect. You wonder what's happened to an old friend, you go to catch up, and they are nowhere to be found and nobody seems to have any idea where they went. Anne is a journalist (and yes, there's a lot that needs to be done with the way the character is written to make her act more like one, but that's more of a detail than a broad structural change) and so she has the skill set necessary to find out for herself what's going on. This centers the story, makes the it about Anne's gradual discovery of what's happened to her friend and the long, weird rabbit hole she goes down. It starts with her trying to get in touch with him and him not responding. Then she contacts family and mutual friends, nobody's heard anything. So she bluffs her way into his apartment, discovers notes for a book he's working on about the weird history of the Cold War. Notebooks filled with information - chemical formulas, shortwave radio frequencies, names of old ops - correspondence with an editor and with sources, receipts for a safe-deposit box. The safe deposit box would contain files, film, and a videotape - classified stuff, stuff he probably shouldn't have, the film old footage of test subjects, convulsing in horror at something only they can see. A videotape of James trying the drug for himself. Anne is an investigator, and she moves through the evidence step by step, making connections, following leads. The stuff from his apartment leads her out into the desert, listening to mechanical voices recite strings of information, information that matches up to notes in James' notebooks. This leads her to the outlaw writer, the drug casualty who has forgotten more about strange trips than she'll ever know. She knows he got James the drug, and she wants to know what happened to him. So he shows her, by dosing her without her knowledge. Now she can see things, terrible things. All the people who have ever just vanished, slipped through the cracks, trapped just on the other side of reality.  Desperate, she follows James' notes to a clandestine drug lab - someone has been synthesizing this stuff, based on old government research and perversions of science. The lab leads her to the military bunker from which the research was sourced, where she faces the horror at its worst. The writer doesn't need to be her guide, he doesn't need to kill himself, and he certainly doesn't need to be one of the original test subjects. None of that is at all necessary. He just needs to be someone who is out there - someone who has seen and lived terrible things, and with whom James came into contact. That's it.

This is the story of an investigation, one thing leads to the next which leads to the next. You don't just dump all the story elements into the audience's lap right off the bat, and you don't need to make everything connect to everything else. It needs to be a journey into darkness. One of the best ways to make a story like this scary is to gradually remove the protagonist from the realm of their regular life as they get more and more involved in investigating what's going on. Anne begins in the light of an ordinary day wondering what happened to her old college buddy, and she ends up alone in the middle of the desert in the ghost of a research facility, tripping balls finding out what her friend saw, knowing what her friend knew as we see what she sees - him and hundreds of others, trapped in this place but just outside of our reality, ruined and alone, the prisoners of things still just barely glimpsed, misshapen things with too many fingers or too many eyes. For it to be a successful horror movie, we need to be horrified. We need to discover all of this at the same time she does, walking into darkness alongside her.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched this film on Netflix. It seemed like a good idea. I've looked past it because of the title and cover combo. I feel let down like I got a taste of something good and then it turned sour. I need a good movie and I need it now! Maybe they should have got you to help out. You pointed out all the problems. The intro was so long and I almost turned it off because I thought it was going to be one of those fake docu movies. Nobody was really going in on this movie. I had to click the 3rd page of Google results to find this blog. This comment is too long. Obviously, I need friends.

    Off topic but BBC America's Intruders is really disappointing.