A writer investigates the disappearance of a friend and gets caught up in the CIA Project MKUltra and perhaps some supernatural links to other universes. Combining the authentic horrors of illegal CIA medical tests on unwitting victims and more Lovecraftian inter-dimensional horrors, ‘Banshee Chapter’ delivers some cheap but occasionally effective scares to keep the audience jumping. This is a bleak and low-budget horror. But too much of the story is drag-drag-drag-BANG all taking place with eye-straining dark photography.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10.
One of the fastest routes into the filmmaking business is via the horror film. One reason is that that route is economical. It need not be expensive to make a film scary. Some of the most effective horror films like ‘White Zombie’ and ‘Carnival Of Souls’ were made on low budgets. It is even less expensive if you go the more recent found-footage route. ‘Banshee Chapter’ is a premier film for its writer/director Blair Erickson. For much of the scares, it depends on intervals of nothing much happening punctuated with sudden loud noises. That approach is not as impressive as creating a deep and fearful mood, but it does work on at least some level. It will get an audience to jump.
The film starts out with actual news coverage about the all too real Project MKUltra. In the 1950s and ’60s, the CIA ran behavioural tests on unwitting Americans to test psychedelic drugs that they thought might have uses in brainwashing and in interrogation. The film suggests that the drug used was dimethyltryptamine which is also real. The fiction kicks in when young James Hirsch (played by Michael McMillian) is years later trying to learn more about Project MKUltra and goes so far as to actually try dimethyltryptamine-19 (DMT-19) on himself. James was never heard from again.
James’ friend Anne Roland (Katia Winter) decides to investigate what happened to him. Somehow, mixed up in all of this, is a ‘numbers’ radio station that seems to have something to do with the users of DMT-19. Numbers radio stations are real also, by the way.
Whoever runs them is unknown, and they broadcast seemingly meaningless random numbers. They are suspected of containing coded messages. The more Anne investigates the more she realizes she does not know and the more sinister things get. Involved with James’ fate is a possibly-psychotic drug-guru, Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), who may or may not be the force behind James’ disappearance.
To a great extent, the story is told with grainy found footage, particularly those scenes showing the sadistic experimentation of MKUltra. The plotting is in large part just thinly disguised souped-up haunted house storytelling. There are lots of dark corridors where most of the image is just this side of total darkness. This is definitely an eyestrain movie. Long dark sequences lure the viewer to almost fall asleep and then something loud and horrific happens. The images are grungy and unpleasant.
In spite of using actual artefacts of the CIA in the Cold War, the film is really a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s story ‘From Beyond’ and there is a bit of ‘Whisperer In The Darkness’ thrown in, if I am not mistaken. The reader can decide which is scarier, the CIA or Lovecraftian creatures from other dimensions.
One of the producers is Zachary Quinto, Mr. Spock in the new series of ‘Star Trek’ films. It also has producers in common with ‘Margin Call’ and ‘All Is Lost’.
This is an ambitious horror film, but too much of the time the viewer is just waiting for something horrific to happen. In the end the film does little that is new and novel. I rate ‘Banshee Chapter’ a 1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. ‘Banshee Chapter’ will be released to theatres January 10, 2014.
Mark R. Leeper
© Mark R. Leeper 2014