Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
If there is anything that my Eldritch Adaptations reviews have taught me so far, it is that directors who try to translate Lovecraft directly to the screen tend to make the least Lovecraftian films. They focus on signifiers of Lovecraft like monsters or tentacles, and in doing so miss the more profound ideas and scares that make Lovecraft effective. Those that truly understand Lovecraft exhibit little loyalty to the plots of his tales. No matter how unchanged the plot is, though, one can easily separate those that actually understand or have insight to the texts, and hacks. That, to me, separates In the Mouth of Madness, Welcome to Night Vale, and The Haunted Palace from Cast a Deadly Spell, Dagon, and The Resurrected.
Banshee Chapter (2013) captures Lovecraft quite nicely, taking the short story “From Beyond” and adapting it to a modern narrative, style, and setting. Maybe captures is the wrong word. Jumps off from might be more accurate. Director Blair Erickson decides to take the story of a machine that activates the pineal gland such that those affected can see creatures that are in our plane but beyond our perception, and transforms it into a story about a drug that has just about the same effect. However, the stakes are much higher; whereas in the original story, a mad scientist invites his friend over to show him the horrors that lurk around us, Banshee Chapter focuses on a journalist, Anne Roland, investigating the disappearance of her friend, which leads down a rabbit hole to a government conspiracy.
This alteration creates a story that is very cinematic in scope and immediacy, and actually allows the director to free himself of the material while also staying true to it. The depth of the conspiracy and the details are ever-elusive, and the focus on a journalist slowly unraveling a maddening web is at the heart of Lovecraft’s finer tales, e.g. “The Call of Cthulhu” or The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Erikson, who co-wrote the script with Daniel J. Healy, understands how to utilize Lovecraft’s skills on a structural level that many directors and screenwriters miss entirely.
The stylistic modernization similarly reflects the film’s simultaneous utilization of and departure from its source material. The movie opens with a found-footage style sequence of Anne’s friend, James Hirsch (Michael McMillian, of True Blood, who makes a scene work that would have fallen flat in the hands of many actors), trying out the drug that activates the pineal gland. This reads as a living document of the descent into madness akin to the previously-mentioned structural technique often used by Lovecraft, and also reflects the authenticity that Lovecraft sought. It feels real, or that it could be, and that is what makes it interesting. We become invested in what follows as a result.
However, Erikson’s loyalty to modern horror tropes is the downfall of the film. Nearly every shot, despite not being found footage, is shaky, and it’s distracting beyond belief. I like the idea of that “authentic” feel, but there’s such a thing as overselling it. Also, the actual horror in this film is completely lacking. In terms of terror, Banshee Chapter might be the most frustrating movie I’ve watched for this series of reviews. Every single scene uses the same format: slow-buildup with music, maybe some complete silence for a second, and then really loud sounds (both diegetic and non-diegetic) combined with a sudden appearance of some creature going “WOOGIE BOOGIE.” It’s cheap and dissatisfying, and enhances some of the more amateurish aspects of the production. I found myself feeling tense when I knew something was coming, but that quickly transferred to anger at the lazy manipulation being enacted upon me.
As a movie, Banshee Chapter might be intriguing and a bit of fun, especially for Lovecraft fans, but as a horror movie, it belongs in a dusty bin of $5 DVDs. When you combine this weakness with the Hunter S Thompson cipher played by Ted Levine (the character barely fits with or seems necessary to the movie), you see a director who seems afraid to take chances or try something new. However, I know this isn’t true, because Erikson does try to use familiar material and do something different. As a result, I remain conflicted about this movie, but I think it’s fair to say that with time, Erikson’s filmography could lead Lovecraft fans to interesting, new places.