Ancient legends from whatever ethnic group can be a potent source material for horror films. The Irish legend of the banshee has spawned such films in the past, and is presented in its latest iteration in Scream of the Banshee. Unfortunately, the film is strapped for budget, which results in some low quality material, and in the end disappoints.
Lauren Holly plays Professor Whelan, who is working on cataloguing the archived holdings of a university, aided by her daughter Shayla (Marcelle Baer), and teaching assistants Otto and Janie (Todd Haberkorn and Leanne Cochran). While combing through the jumbled artifacts, they come across a hidden room containing a sole, metal box. They are able to open it with the aid of a metal gauntlet they discovered earlier. Inside is the wickedly grinning head of a banshee.
Of course, none of them know it belongs to a banshee, but quite soon the head begins to shriek, causing all who hear it to bleed from the ears, and quickly explodes. After this, mysterious things start happening to all who heard the scream, and people begin to die. Whelan is determined to discover what is behind the eerie goings on, and stumbles across the video blog of former professor Duncan (Lance Henrikson), who had spent his career studying the box, and the legend of the banshee. He is also quite obviously crazy (c.f. the dismembered mannequins he keeps on his lawn) and even perhaps determined to wreak havoc on the world using the banshee as his tool. The bodies keep piling up as Whelan races both to defeat the banshee and protect her daughter from harm.
Scream of the Banshee was co-produced by and debuted on the SyFy Channel, which is not a heartening sign for fans of the horror genre. That doubt is fully justified by the film, which has some significant problems. Taken individually, none of these flaws would result in a doomed movie, but together, as they are here, they make failure inescapable. The first issue is Lauren Holly in the lead, who, though sincere, is not at all convincing as a seasoned anthropologist or archeologist or whatever it is that she is supposed to be. An alternate title for the film might have been Lauren Holly Looks Concerned, as, aside from the nominal task of defeating the banshee, her only job appears to be the expression of worry, in its various shades. She is not compelling or sympathetic, and yet the audience is supposed to root for her. This deficit of feeling is not aided by the often clunky, overwrought or silly dialogue. The rest of the cast does well enough with the plate they are given, with the exception of unquestionably talented Henrikson who hams up his performance to the nth degree, but the drama rests on Holly's shoulders, and she is not up to the task. There are surely a number of roles that would fit her talents well, but this is not one of them.
Another big problem rests in the effects, and their injudicious use. The practical effects are decent to good, especially the blood and splatter, but the filmmakers choose to reveal the banshee makeup too soon, and in essentially full light, which seriously detracts from the scare factor. (See further comment on this in the "Extras" section below.) Seen close up, the makeup quickly loses its ability to frighten, accomplished as it is, and would have been much better utilized in the shadows or the corner of the eye. This then leads us to the CG effects, which are abominably cheap and fake looking. Why use a cheesy CG effect for a breaking a mirror, when one could have for less money and better results actually broken a mirror? And the CG hand reaching out of the smoke toward a character was of roughly video game quality. The same with green screen shots for driving scenes, and various others. The artificial look of these shots snaps the audience right out of the moment and reminds them forcefully that they are watching a film.
This is not to say that Scream of the Banshee is entirely without merit. Periodically throughout the film, there are moments of tension and fear, and a few very effective jump scares. One bit where we see a grotesquely rotted finger poke through a peephole is especially nice. But these moments are not enough to carry the picture. That is something that only a compelling lead and solid story can accomplish, and both of those things are missing here. The film has the feeling of having been churned out or rushed, and it fails to achieve its goals as a result. Rent this one.
The image is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and generally looks good, though there is some aliasing visible on occasion. Generally the image is clear and bright, perhaps too bright for an effective horror film.
The audio is available in Dolby digital 5.1 channel and 2 channel, and sounds good, with the occasional solid bass tone coming from the LFE channel, and decent separation across the channels. The dialogue is always clearly audible, and no hiss or other problem can be heard. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The extras include trailers for several other Lionsgate releases, and commercials for Epix and Break.com. The most significant extra, though, is the commentary with director Steven C. Miller and composer Ryan Dodson. A good commentary will change one's perspective on a film, and this one certainly did. Miller is quite honest about the shortcomings of the film, due mostly to the very short shooting schedule (twelve days) and low budget. He also comments on several issues mentioned in the above review, particularly about the banshee effects being seen in nearly full light. It seems that Miller was not allowed to be very involved in some aspects of the post production process, and had indeed intended for the banshee shots to be much darker and shadowed. In any case, Miller and Dodson are very engaging fellows, who have a passion for filmmaking. Hopefully soon they will have a chance to try their hand at a project with more resources.
Scream of the Banshee is a film hampered by a mediocre script and a very low budget. As much as the filmmakers try, they can't quite make it a totally successful movie, though there are a number of effective moments. One hopes that this is merely a look at the early career of Steven C. Miller, and that he will thrive as he moves up the food chain. As it is, Scream of the Banshee is at best a rental.