Banshee!!! (2008) *½
The natural expectation of a horror movie called Banshee!!! is that it would be a movie about a banshee. Those of you who remember Cry of the Banshee will already see where I’m going with this, I think. Banshee!!! manages a little better than the aforementioned latter-day AIP film, in that it at least revolves around a monster that writers Gregory C. Parker, Christian Pindar, and John Doolan call a banshee, but Banshee!!!’s banshee has even less in common with its folkloric namesake than Twilight’s vampires do with theirs. In Celtic legend, a banshee is a female spirit that acts as a messenger of death. Generally appearing in the form of a ghostly woman (although a variety of other guises are possible), a banshee foretells death or other grave misfortune by weeping and wailing in the night. Often the death foretold is the hearer’s own, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Some banshees are supposed to attach themselves to specific families, so that one encountered on a lord’s estate might cry in prophecy of a death within the seigniorial clan. Or alternately, a banshee might appear to someone in forecast of the death of a loved one. But in all cases, the point is that the banshee herself kills nobody; she merely delivers the verdict of Fate in that unhelpfully ambiguous way that the spirit world always seems to favor. The banshee of Banshee!!!, in rather stark contrast, is an anthropophagous monster somewhat resembling a winged version of the hellhounds from Ghostbusters, whose infrasonic vocalizations double as weapon and cloaking device. It’s a pretty cool creature, honestly, but in no defensible sense is it a banshee.
One night in 1970, in the little eastern Connecticut town of Wallingford, three friends (J. Matthew Root, Fog Warning’s Michael Barra, and Michael Wrann, from Slaughter Weekend and Hunting Season) are getting stoned in a basement together when they are overcome by the munchies. Setting off to do something about that, they encounter a sexy, blonde hitchhiker (porn performer Jess Wakefield— and by the way, who the fuck gets turned on by a title like Drowning in Bitch Juice?!?!) on a remote stretch of highway. Or at any rate, the boys assume she’s a hitchhiker, since she’s standing out in the middle of the road, making no apparent effort to get anywhere under her own power. She doesn’t ask to be taken to any specific destination when they stop for her, though— in fact, she doesn’t say anything at all. She just climbs into the car, sits there quietly for a few minutes after the driver gets rolling again, and then kills all three passengers with her bare hands, sending the car hurtling over a cliff to what was supposed to be its destruction. (The antique Plymouth used for the stunt did not cooperate, and took no damage beyond a broken headlight upon hitting the soft ground below the cliff. Can I get a “fuck yeah!” for late-60’s Detroit workmanship?) A funny thing, though: while strangling the fattest of the three stoners, the killer blonde suddenly transforms into his exact duplicate.
Decades later, the land where the crash occurred belongs to a gruff old man named Jack (Kevin Shea, from Blood Descendants and Werewolf: The Devil’s Hound) and his wife, Rose (Patty Shea, who I gather is married to Kevin in real life). Jack wants to clear the junk and underbrush from a section of his property for whatever reason, and while he and his friends, Art (Art Lowsley) and Earl (Bob Robertson), are at that work with some rented heavy equipment, they stumble upon the stoners’ old Fury II (now looking properly wrecked and rotted). By the time they get the car dug out of the bramble patch that had sprung up around it, it’s too late in the day to bother towing it to Art’s garage to strip it for parts, so the three men do no more than to pry open the trunk in search of anything readily portable. Instead, they find a gnarled and blackened object that looks like nothing so much as a cocoon big enough to accommodate a good-sized black bear. Obviously they’re all very curious as to what in the hell the thing is, but that mystery, too, will keep until morning.
Meanwhile, a bunch of college students are driving into the woods around Jack’s land for a spring break camping trip. Lake (Troy Walcott) justly asks Veronica (Ashley Bates, also of Fog Warning, and of Alien Opponent as well), the organizer of the trip, why she picked “East Bumblefuck, Connecticut” as their vacation sopt, and she frankly has no credible answer for him. It seems to me, though, that the time for that question was before agreeing to come along. None of these kids’ behavior makes very much sense, though, so I guess we’ll let it slide. The campers can be sorted into three sub-groups by traveling arrangements. Heading up the main caravan are Veronica, Kerry (Predator Island’s Iris McQuillan-Grace), and Jennifer Parker (Cristina Santiago, from Assault of the Sasquatch), all piled into the latter girl’s Honda. Behind them with Lake are Greg (A. Mike Forgette), Mike (Nathan Pupillo), and Thomas (screenwriter Doolan), none of whom, somewhat surprisingly, are dating any of the girls (although Lake has been trying futilely to get with Veronica since about seventh grade). The only couple in the group are Chad (Jesse Murphy, of Mind Morgue) and Lauren (Jade Anderson), who drove up separately, timing their arrival so as to permit them several hours (if not a full night) to themselves before the scheduled rendezvous with the others.
Now given the kind of movie this is, you might think Chad and Lauren would be the first to fall prey to the so-called banshee when it inevitably hatches out of that nasty-ass cocoon. That’s not the case, however, although it will catch up to them soon enough, during the “random killings to inflate the body count while padding out the running time” portion of the film. Strictly speaking, the first victim is Jack’s dog, Max (leave it to a dog to go rolling around in fucking banshee resin), but the first human we see killed is Thomas, who stays behind to mind the campsite while the other six wander off into the woods for no reason that I pretend to understand. When they return, the banshee is posing as Thomas, but it’s still plain enough that something has gone terribly wrong in their absence, as the fire has gone out and the tents are all torn to shreds. The creature stalls by projecting an illusion of intact tents when Jennifer demands to know what happened, but either its visual trickery gets dodgy when it’s excited, or all it wants is a few extra seconds in which to get close to its prey. Mike and Jennifer die in short order before the remaining four campers take off running, and the banshee goes in somewhat leisurely pursuit. Eventually, Veronica, Lake, Kerry, and Corey reach Jack’s house, but Corey doesn’t live to cross the threshold to relative safety. Still, the monster plainly understands that Jack’s shotgun can hurt it, for it withdraws into the woods rather than attack the house.
If Jack seems oddly well prepared for the banshee, there’s an excellent reason why— Max is not the only member of his household to have been killed by the monster. Rose, too, was slain— right in her own kitchen— and the creature nearly got their nephew, Rocker (David McCarthy), as well when he showed up for a weekend visit with the old couple. (Rocker, obviously, is not the kid’s real name. It derives from his membership in some kind of alt-metal band, and he uses it to the exclusion of whatever handle his parents tried to stick him with.) Jack and Rocker have paid close attention during their encounters with the banshee, and they’ve picked up some useful information. For one thing, it hates loud noises— hates them— especially loud noises of high frequency. A car alarm or radio static or the sound of Rocker’s guitar will make it cringe and squirm, or even run away if the noise persists long enough. Also, wearing earplugs for some reason interferes with the banshee’s ability to create illusions. Kerry suggests that the monster must be using infrasound to induce hallucinations— which, as we see so often in horror movies today, is a genuine scientific concept that doesn’t work at all the way the writers seem to think. (Sound waves with frequencies around 18Hz are undetectable by the human ear, but can cause sympathetic vibrations in the eyeball. The brain registers those vibrations either as a general blurring of vision or as patterns of bright streaks or smears. Some parapsychologists theorize that such infrasonic hallucinations might explain ghost and UFO sightings, but it’s a long road from seeing blobs of light that aren’t there to seeing your dead aunt in place of a hulking monster. And because the hallucinations are produced directly by jiggling the eyeball, wearing earplugs would be no help at all in preventing them.) The question is whether the folks holed up at Jack’s house can cobble those observations into a plan that will either provide cover for a breakout from the banshee’s radius of operations or enable them to fend it off until serious help arrives.
Serious help may indeed be on the way, too— at least for values of “serious” less than or equal to a small-town New England police department. Jennifer’s mom (Ellen Woolf, another Werewolf: The Devil’s Hound cast-member) is an inveterate worrywart, and she apparently did not sign off on the girl’s participation in Veronica’s campout. Mrs. Parker calls the police, and demands that Officer Juliana Bansley (Kerry McGann, also in Assault of the Sasquatch) head out into the woods to haul Jennifer home. Bansley takes Mrs. Parker’s concerns none too seriously at first (evidently the latter woman has a habit of gratuitously enlisting police power as a parenting aid), but that changes dramatically when she locates the campsite, and sees the human remains strewn about it. She also finds the trail of an additional body being dragged away, and following that leads Bansley to the barn where the banshee has been caring for its young. Juliana kills the banshee larva that attacks her there, then returns to her car to call for backup. Her radio is working only a little better than the campers’ cell phones, though, so rather than wait around for reinforcements that may never arrive, she proceeds on her own to the nearest habitation— Jack’s house. So either the cavalry is coming, or the banshee is about to get a chance to avenge its offspring.
The main thing wrong with Banshee!!! is the acting. Kerry McGann and the Sheas are passable, and David McCarthy isn’t too bad, but everybody else is just relentlessly dreadful. I’m talking public-access cable dreadful, discount furniture store commercial voiceover dreadful. The performers know their lines and can recite them without stumbling, but anything more seems to be beyond their capacity. Now to be fair, it surely didn’t help that the screenplay frequently requires the characters to do and say things that make little or no sense, as when Lake turns on a dime from arguing with Rocker over the efficacy of earplugs as an anti-banshee measure to fighting with Veronica over why she still won’t date him after all these years. For that matter, I cannot fathom why Vernoica would have invited Lake along in the first place, given her expressed opinion of him as a guy “you wouldn’t even touch.” But weaknesses in the writing don’t absolve the cast of delivering their lines the way children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, without apparent thought, feeling, or even comprehension.
That said, I have come out of movies with only slightly better overall acting than Banshee!!!’s much more warmly disposed than this. And beyond that, this film does have a few things going for it that normally carry a lot of weight with me. Leaving aside the point that it isn’t a banshee, the monster is, as I’ve said, an item in the credit column. It’s cleverly conceived (if a little sloppy in the details), imaginatively designed (if contrary to every possible expectation, considering what it’s supposed to be), and acceptably well executed (if inevitably a little too video-gamy in an unfortunately large number of shots). There’s some very effective use of flashbacks to fill in the back-story of Jack and his family after the campers arrive at the house. And the filmmakers display a commendable willingness to play very rough indeed with the protagonists. Too many of the plusses come with built-in limiting factors, though (see my parenthetical caveats in praising the monster, for example), and a couple of truly catastrophic flubs along the way undo just about everything good that Banshee!!! accomplishes. The most egregious example of the latter comes during the climax, when Rocker attempts… well, to rock the banshee to death. He drags his great, big Ampeg combo amp out onto the lawn, cranks it up as high as it will go, and proceeds to jam, groove, and shred with all his heart (and to the accompaniment of every cheesy Guitar God pose in the book) while Jack and Veronica pepper the monster with shotgun shells and Molotov cocktails. It’s like something out of a Ted Nugent video, and it would honestly be less embarrassing if John-Mikl Thor were doing it instead of David McCarthy. Even a much better movie would have a hard time recovering from that, and Banshee!!! doesn’t have a hope in Hell.