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Bansheechapter

After a distressingly rough opening, writer/director Blair Erickson’s modest sci-fi chiller, Banshee Chapter (2013) ends up settling into a pretty comfortable groove, thanks in no small part to an enjoyably over-the-top performance by none other than The Silence of the Lamb’s (1991) own Buffalo Bill, Ted Levine. Levine is pretty gonzo (pun intended) as a free-spirited writer who looks and acts a whole lot like Hunter S. Thompson and he, along with some pretty creepy ideas and visuals, manage to do a lot of the heavy lifting. There ends up being quite a lot of slack to take up here, though, thanks to a rather confusing script, some perspective issues regarding the found-footage aspect and an overly trite resolution. The film’s never dull, however, and even manages flashes of brilliance, from time to time, usually whenever Levine is snarfing up scenery.

Journalist Anne Roland (Katia Winter) is on the hunt for her old college friend, James (Michael McMillian), who’s gone missing after consuming some sort of experimental chemical known as MK-Ultra. We’ve already seen James get snatched by “something,” thanks to the rather stereotypical found-footage opening, so we’re one step ahead of poor Anne: things are strange and only going to get stranger.

After going to see a short-wave radio enthusiast, in order to identify the radio broadcast that can be heard during James’ recorded final minutes, Anne is introduced to the notion of “numbers stations”: short-wave radio stations that broadcast odd transmissions consisting of robotic voices (male, female and children, various languages) reading strings of numbers. In this case, Anne’s contact tells her that the best way to catch that particular station is to listen from the far side of the Black Rock Desert, sometime between 3-5 in the morning. She does and ends up hearing the broadcast for herself, along with catching a glimpse of “something” out in the darkness.

Properly spooked, Anne tracks down the person that she believes sent James the chemical, the aforementioned Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine). Once she meets Blackburn, Anne really goes down the rabbit-hole, getting introduced to a new world of government conspiracies, secret tests and alternate dimensions. As Anne and Blackburn move from one clue to the next, they get closer to the original source of the MK-Ultra, the mysterious Dr. Kessel (Chad Brummett). The answers to all of Anne’s questions may be found within the abandoned walls of Kessel’s desert bunker…along with the keys to the destruction of mankind.

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: there’s a lot to like in Banshee Chapter but you have to be willing to wade through a bit of refuse to get there. For one thing, the film never really finds its footing as a found-footage film: too often, there are disingenuous moments, like non-digetic sound or subjective camera angles, that tend to throw a monkey-wrench into the machinery. The film is also terribly fond of loud musical stingers for jump scares and the ending, which manages to reference Fallen (1998), is kind of a mess.

Despite lots of issues, however, there are plenty of genuinely creepy moments in the film, not least of which is the moment where Anne goes to listen to the radio broadcast in the middle of desert. With her face lit only by the green dashboard light, the scene is a masterpiece of economy and subtly, wringing every last drop of tension possible out of the scenario. The desert bunker is also a pretty incredible location and is well-used in the film: good locations go along way toward making a horror film and Banshee Chapter has a few memorable ones. The overall idea is also pretty damn creepy: I’ve always been fascinated by numbers stations and the film weaves their mythology into the storyline in some pretty smart ways, arriving at a final reveal that I really wish hadn’t been let down by the pedestrian finale.

More than anything, however, Ted Levine’s performance as Blackburn is a huge check mark in the “asset” column for the film. I’m hard-pressed to remember anything that Levine has been in, aside from Silence of the Lambs, but he’s absolutely fantastic in Banshee Chapter, even if he’s basically playing his own version of Johnny Depp’s version of Hunter S. He’s quick-witted, genuinely funny, just outrageous enough to be believable and never less than completely committed to the role. If anything, I wish that there had been more Blackburn in the film: making him the protagonist may have given the film the extra edge it needed to truly excel. As it is, however, Levine is one very big reason to give the film a shot.

First-time writer/director Erickson does quite a bit right on his debut feature, even if he also manages to trip more than a time or two. More than anything, his script shows a willingness to take some pretty familiar concepts (found-footage, government conspiracies, secret medical facilities) and take them into some fairly original new places. If he’s less successful than he could be, this (hopefully) hints at lots of room to grow and improve in the future. While Banshee Chapter is no hidden masterpiece, it’s a consistently watchable, often unnerving chiller that features a handful of truly interesting ideas, a great performance by Levine and some really creepy locations. It also might make you think twice about those strange, fuzzed-out stations that you can sometimes almost hear, wafting through the universe on a warm, summer night.

 

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