It has been stated many times that horror movies thrive on the unknown. The unknown killer, that unknown threat in the darkness, the evil possible right on the periphery of the known, is the fuel of cinematic fear. When too much is exposed, fear subsides. I would amend that fact slightly. Real terror isn’t the external unknown, but the unknown within ourselves. When our own perception can’t be trusted, when anything can flip and change from something innocuous to something evil in one confusing moment, that is when primal fear rises. That is the fear explored in The Banshee Chapter, the feature length debut from Blair Erickson. The fear that is found when all of our developed coping mechanisms are useless, the ground they are built on is suddenly shifting.
From its opening frame The Banshee Chapter is intent on shifting the narrative ground it stands on. From alternating stock news footage, found footage, and factual text about government experiments in the 60s, the first moments of the film are so disjointed and choppy that the audience is never really given the chance to gain any cinematic footing. Combine that with the fact that the film finally seems to finally settle in to found footage, only to swerve into typical cinematic storytelling with sprinkles of video footage of chemical experiments and you have a film that seems intent on confusing and tormenting its audience. The truth is, that in less adept hands this approach could simply be annoying. Luckily, though, Erickson is adept at this sort of presentation. While a large portion of The Banshee Chapter doesn’t even seem to attempt to make sense, it does effectively creep the viewer out.
To describe the plot is nearly pointless here. Pointless because the film itself doesn’t seem that interested in developing it. Most questions go unanswered, most characters unexplored. At its most basic level it is about a young novelist who decides to experiment with a drug that the government used as a psychotropic study. When this young author goes missing, leaving behind pretty disturbing found footage on his way out, his college friend Anne(Katia Winter) decides to investigate the drug and the disappearance of her friend. That’s it. That’s the narrative portion of this film. The rest is a chemically induced trip through landscapes and locations that may or may not be based in reality. In truth, what is real in this film is never very clear. This fact isn’t a criticism, however, it is this nebulous nature of the film that makes it work. What is unexplored and lacking in storytelling here is made up for with eery scenes of hallucination(or maybe not) and creepy sounds creaking out of the darkness.
While that type of experience may be aggravating for some viewers, it is undoubtedly what makes The Banshee Chapter stand apart from other horror films. While what is unknown is scary, what is assumed to be known only to melt away into hallucination is terrifying. When your own mind is the unreliable narrator nothing is safe or comfortable.
While there will surely be a sect of viewers who watch this film frame by frame in hopes of unlocking its narrative secrets, the real power of The Banshee Chapter is the presentation of its own nebulous secrets. When nothing is stable, even a film’s own narration, the result can be aggravating but it can also be intriguing. Much like the government based psychedelic experiments of the 60s, The Banshee Chapter is more pure experience than any form of understood logic, but luckily that experience results in a pretty compelling film.