Out on DVD now, the independent horror movie Banshee Chapter is a weird amalgamation of a found-footage movie and a governmental conspiracy thriller. Right off the bat, it’s obvious it’s not going to follow any sort of established rule(s) of the found-footage genre.
Sometimes the characters directly address the camera, but just as quickly the film will cut to another shot that is wholly outside of the established world of the scene. Clearly, director Blair Erickson is only interested in using the POV aspect of found-footage storytelling when it suits him, which is mostly for tension-building right before a jump scare.
The setup is promising. Erickson uses actual videotaped footage of government figures talking about the unethical MKUltra program, which was a secret CIA project that began in the 1950s and experimented with mind control on human subjects. All kinds of physical and mental abuse were heaped upon the human guinea pigs, including the use of LSD.
In Banshee Chapter, a journalist (Katia Winter) goes searching for a friend of hers who disappeared not long after experimenting with DMT-19, one of these drugs. This search somehow leads her to a drug-fueled Hunter S. Thompson-style writer, played by Ted Levine.
Sound design is a huge part of Banshee Chapter, from the otherworldly music box static on the radio to the mechanical-sounding blasts of music that punctuate the scariest of scenes. The media abruptly shifts gears, from black-and-white recreations of watermarked fuzzy videotapes of the experiments to the main story, shot with multiple handheld cameras — with video static always serving as the transition.
The scariest moments are extended scenes where the characters suddenly start behaving strangely after ingesting the drug and all sense of normalcy is abandoned. Unfortunately, there’s also way too many jump scares that follow the same pattern and eventually grow tiresome.
When anything resembling a plot is introduced, the dialogue surrounding it feels pretty forced, like the time Levine starts telling the girl about an H.P. Lovecraft story that mirrors their situation. As the jump scares continue to multiply, the mystery becomes less compelling, but the movie does manage a very creepy tone throughout.
Four short featurettes about the making of the film are included on the DVD: The History of the Banshee Chapter, What is the Banshee Chapter?, Directing Banshee Chapter, and Shooting in 3D. The last one is particularly confusing because the film is not presented in 3D on this DVD.