Today: April 10, 2024

The Banshee Chapter

What is the job of a director? Some would argue that it is principally a managerial position that takes the work of many different people and combines them to create a singular vision. Others might say that directors are there to create memorable images that augment and inform a story born of the written word. There are many answers to this question but the principle underlying all of them is that a director must be able to take a written script and translate it into a series of moving images that tell a comprehensible story. Based on the evidence of his debut film The Banshee Chapter, Blair Erickson is not yet ready to work as a director, let alone a writer/director with sole control over a film’s narrative.

Banshee Chapter is built around a simple mystery: Aspiring journalist (Katia Winter) hears of a friend’s disappearance and decides to investigate. This investigation prompts her to team up with a psychotic novelist (Tim Levine) and together they disappear into a sinister world of mind-altering drugs, government conspiracies, unethical psychologists, and alien incursions. In truth, the details of the plot should not really matter as horror films are all about the scares and even a generic plot can be effective as long as it provides context for the scares and enough character development to get the audience invested in the characters’ survival. Horror film plotting can be exquisite but it is only required to be ballast and this is precisely where Erickson’s directorial shortcomings are most evident.

Prior to making Banshee Chapter, Blair Erickson worked as an editor on documentaries. His familiarity with documentary techniques is immediately evident in the way that the opening of the film combines period clips and skilful fakes to describe the CIA’s long history of testing psychoactive chemicals on the civilian population. Fiercely evocative, this introduction sets up a scene in which a failed writer announces his decision to try out one of the CIA’s best-kept chemical secrets. This turns out to be a predictably stupid idea but the one-two punch of atmospheric exposition, elegantly directed psychotropic crap storm and documentary-style realism is precisely what you would expect from someone who began their career as an editor but has since outgrown that role. Not since The Blair Witch Project and its companion documentary have we seen two different non-fiction styles work together in tandem to produce a genuine sense of dread. However, despite this pseudo-documentary style working incredibly well, Erickson abandons it almost immediately.

The introduction complete, Erickson migrates to a decidedly more hackneyed found footage format in which Winter’s journalist keeps a video diary of her investigation. Despite being rather tired, this style works quite well as the video diary conceit allows Winter to explain the plot directly to camera while Erickson uses interference and Paranormal Activity-style camera movements to engineer a series of highly effective jump scares. Already more conventional than the startling introduction, the use of found footage soon gives way to a far more classical style as Winter stops explaining the plot to camera and begins explaining it to her co-star.

While the abandonment of a faux-documentary style in favour of a found footage format can be accounted for in terms of a clunky distinction between introductory vignette and narrative proper, Erickson’s failure to manage the transition from found footage to a more conventional narrative leaves audiences confused as to what it is that they are supposed to be seeing. This is particularly glaring when Erickson continues to use found footage techniques despite the fact that the journalist is no longer keeping a video diary. It is one thing for the picture to go fuzzy and the camera to dart around in a panicky fashion when a terrified character is holding it, but why would there be interference and panicky camera movements when none of the characters are holding a camera? What is that interference supposed to represent? Erickson’s confusion of first-person and third-person perspectives on his cinematic world results in a world so broken and incoherent that it comes dangerously close to collapsing in a puddle of beautifully-edited gibberish. Undoubtedly a skilled editor, Blair Erickson is a director who is clearly intent upon sprinting before he can walk but no amount of clever editing and effective atmospherics can ever compensate for a fundamental inability to turn a written script into a coherent cinematic world.

It is somewhat telling that the press material for Banshee Chapter mentions the name Zachary Quinto on no less than three separate occasions. Best known for playing Spock in the new Star Trek movies, Quinto’s involvement in this project appears to have ended when he signed the cheques and yet the presence of this rising star in the film’s credits seems to have been sufficient to elevate this frustrating and incompetent mess into something deserving a proper commercial release. Given the huge number of competently made films that go without any kind of commercial release, the release of Banshee Chapter is not just illogical, it’s downright unjust.

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