At its best, the found footage genre manages to convince the audience that it is a genuine document, materials retrieved and assembled in the public interest, often relating to persons missing presumed dead. Particularly favoured by producers of low budget horror, perhaps the best known example is The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999 by directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick; an essential part of the marketing of that film was the then achievable conceit that the videotape of the three film students hiking through the Black Hills was not staged, that it was indeed a genuine incident caught on camera.
Conversely, at its worst, found footage is improvised scenes of teenagers staggering through the woods as they swear and blame each other for their predicament when they should be blaming their agent; A Night in the Woods, get thee to a bargain bin. The directorial debut of Blair Erickson, co-written with Daniel J Healy, Banshee Chapter is not in fact a true found footage film, but for inexplicable reasons has adopted many of the stylistic and narrative characteristics which define that subgenre.
Tying together two tropes beloved of conspiracy theorists, government experiments on the population and “numbers stations,” radio stations which broadcast seemingly random strings of numbers and words, believed by some to be a mask for coded transmissions during the cold war, it is also strongly influenced by H P Lovecraft’s 1934 short story From Beyond, filmed in 1986 by Stuart Gordon as his followup to Re-Animator, also based on Lovecraft, with the characters even discussing the vintage work.
Opening with the requisite montage of stock footage of public faces including President Bill Clinton and former CIA director Stansfield Turner as they respond to questions about government sanctioned mind control drug trials, the film then introduces student James Hirsch (True Blood’s Michael McMillian) as he records his own recent attempt to recreate the experiments of Project MKUltra, ingesting the chemical dimethyltryptamine-19.
Switching to the present, Anne (Katia Winter) is investigating the disappearance of James, and discovers the videotape he made along with his notebooks. Taking a lead from his interest in numbers stations, she travels to the desert hoping to find the source of the transmissions, then follows another lead which takes her to writer Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine, best known as Silence of the Lamb’s Buffalo Bill).
Hostile towards her questioning and refusing to discuss his knowledge of Project MKUltra, Blackburn tricks Anne into taking the DMT-19 herself, and she too begins experiencing the phenomena which James described. Now part of her own investigation, she and Blackburn reluctantly travel back into the desert to find the original site of the experiments which they believe to be tied to the transmissions.
It is ironic that for a film which is concerned with perception and mind control the way it attempts to manipulate the audience; while some of Anne’s investigation is self-filmed and some is relayed via security cameras, much of it is ostensibly a traditional film, the camera the silent observer outside the events of the film, yet all the camera and lighting techniques employed are from the shaky handheld school of cinema which typifies found footage.
Combined with the genuine and mock archive footage and the obsession with documentation, it is clear that Erickson wishes to create the illusion of found footage while sidestepping the question of who is constantly filming and why, though a more pertinent question might be why bother? Frequently used as a tool to paper over how slight the plot is, it’s as though the film is relying on the audience being conditioned to the narrative sleights of hand that have become accepted within the format.
Often presented thematically as a question rather than an answer, the nature of found footage also requires that the audience can never know more than the characters, so if they die without understanding the circumstances of their demise, the film is off the hook with regards to explanation; by mimicking that style, Banshee Chapter asks the audience to grant it the same boon, but only on the terms it lays out.
As is so often the case, lazy scriptwriting presents an underdeveloped premise as a finished script, with no effort expended to craft a satisfying and convincing conclusion. Instead, the interference on the picture, the jump cuts, the mismatched inserts of random supposedly shocking footage and the final “stinger” of a piece of archive material revealing crucial background information, having all been done so many times before, are not indications of invention, rather they are amateur, an admission of significant creative shortcomings.
This is a great disappointment, as despite being disjointed and suffering from long meandering passages, both Winter and Levine are excellent in their antagonistic and distrustful enforced cooperation, but their relationship is not sufficient to support the hope that an entire film can be built on shadows and banging on doors in the dark. The film can be atmospheric, as when out in the desert at night, the voices out of the air a creepy message on the cusp of understanding but it fails to maintain the sense of unease, instead opting for the cheap shock of the telegraphed jump scare when a refusal to conform to expectation would have been served it better.