Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Cinema File #351: "Banshee Chapter" Review

Casting off the classic monster movies of the 40's and 50's and the slasher killers of the 80's and 90's, horror cinema in the new millennium has long since found a new sub genre to run into the ground, and regrettably, the defining format of this decade has officially been declared to be...found footage movies. So cheap and easy to make, qualities beloved by horror producers for ages, what started out as a fad bolstered by the surprise success of the Paranormal Activity franchise has blossomed into a juggernaut of increasingly terrible, and by virtue of the medium mostly poorly shot attempts to jump on the bandwagon. When the trend might finally stop being profitable remains to be seen, but in the meantime, horror fans will have to continue to suffer through it, and all too often watch what could have been great movies ruined by this tired formula, as in the case of last year's otherwise highly enjoyable Banshee Chapter.

Banshee Chapter could best be described as a modern day found footage homage to From Beyond, the classic H.P. Lovecraft short story adapted most famously in 1986 by Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. In all iterations of the story including the current one, science meddles in areas where it does not belong, breaching the barrier between this world and another dimension filled with mysterious and savage creatures, specifically by altering the senses of normal humans so that they can see what they are not meant to see, only realizing too late that what they see can now see them as well. Banshee Chapter actually applies a neat new layer to the idea by grounding the horrifying experiments in reality, attributing the supernatural event to the very real and still largely secret MK Ultra experiments of the 1970's, in which test subjects were often unknowingly given dangerous drugs to find ways to chemically manipulate human behavior.

Now, in a way, as much as the attachment to such a dark moment in our history is a nice twist, its also the first real problem with the movie. MK Ultra damaged so many lives and revealed a penchant for unchecked draconian evil on the part of our own government. Though the project itself was shelved, it was only one of many, and its impossible to know how many are still going on today under similar levels of secrecy. To treat this very real thing as a plot device for an otherwise entirely fictional horror movie, while not so gross as to be outright offensive, feels just a tiny bit tacky nonetheless. While one could argue that the film obviously separates the real footage from the fictional narrative and thus informs more people about this reality, it would be very easy for the less curious viewer to associate it with the general fiction of the film and dismiss it entirely. What's more, once its established just how real this was, no fake documentary about extra dimensional monsters could possibly be more interesting than a real one about what this project actually did.

And as fake documentaries go, this might be the laziest, which is to say that the film's attempt to tack on the found footage format to a story clearly requiring a broader range of perspective is so half assed that it takes you out of the movie at almost every point in which it is emphasized. It starts out as a doc about another doc, in which a woman documents her search for her missing ex boyfriend who in turn was documenting the mysterious drug used to summon monsters, which is convoluted but fine, except that ten minutes in, the movie forgets that its supposed to be a fake doc, and spends the rest of the running time switching back and forth between obvious found footage shots and shots impossible to reconcile as being made by a real camera present in the action. Either there's a camera man with her the whole time who never speaks, or she managed to hire a ghost, or more likely, the movie just doesn't give a crap, which I get, since I wouldn't, but if you're going to go this route anyway, the least you could do is get it right.

Its really a shame too, because the constant distraction is diverting attention away from what could have been a very gripping and original supernatural thriller. The historical context of MK Ultra leads to an inspired choice in the character of Thomas Blackburn, a drugged out 60's counter culture radical modeled after Hunter S. Thompson and played gruffly charming by Ted Levine, who in any other movie might be in one scene to provide exposition, but here becomes a major part of the action after he's introduced. The adventure itself is intriguing and spooky with a welcome minimalist approach to the various shocking reveals, even if the mechanics of these creatures gets a bit muddled here and there. The resolution at the end feels a bit pat, as the threat is contained when it feels like it should be more widespread, but a coda at the end revealing a deeper threat is enough to satisfy.

Banshee Chapter is a great movie executed almost too poorly to recommend. Everything not related to the gimmick of found footage is entirely watchable and for the most part very enjoyable, so if you can get past the problem of just who is filming and how this is all being presented, there's no reason not to give it a chance. Personally, I couldn't, but even I could see the good movie hiding under all the bad. I almost can't bring myself to blame the movie for its faults, as its riding a wave without which it very well may not have gotten the funding to be made. When found footage is part of the elevator pitch, whether we like it or not its a selling point for financiers, and while I would have much preferred to see this movie on its own without the shaky cam nonsense, if that's the only way to get it, I guess I'll just have to live with it.
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