Banshee Chapter is an effective little thriller that weaves together a number of different facts and theories to produce a story that is stronger than the sum of its parts, with a tense atmosphere and frightening concept that will likely stay with you after the credits roll. This debut film from director Blair Erickson is presented through a mishmash of narrative styles, opening with historical documentary clips and a found-footage segment before transitioning into more of a standard investigation narrative that propels the majority of the film’s central action. The whole thing plays like a cross between The Fourth Kind, Session 9 and The Blair Witch Project, with key story elements adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond. By the end, several of the ideas that are suggested come to incite more genuine fear than the film’s actual sequences themselves, yet it remains an undeniable success on its own terms, turning a unique story into a thought-provoking thriller that you are not likely to forget anytime soon.
The setup draws primarily from the Project MKUltra experiments performed by the CIA in the 50’s-70’s, wherein US and Canadian citizens were exposed to horrifying tests against their will – such as the administration of hallucinogenic drugs in high doses – as part of a Government-sanctioned research project. The true facts surrounding the atrocities that occurred in this program are far more terrifying than anything contained within this film, making it an effective starting point that ties the fictional story to a frightening historical reality, and earns the audience’s attention right off the top. The film then works to link specific elements – most notably the testing done with dimethyltryptamine-19 (DMT-19) – with theories surrounding the so-called “numbers stations” that have been found to produce cryptic shortwave radio signals in remote locations. These real-world elements become the foundation from which the film’s writers have re-envisioned the Lovecraftian concept of inter-dimensional beings, perceived through the activation of the pineal gland – the part of the human brain that is often considered our “biological antenna” or “third eye”.
The film opens on college-graduate James Hirsch (Michael McMillian) who is writing a book about the Project MKUltra experiments involving DMT-19, and the mysterious results which suggest encounters with frightening beings. In his search for answers, James takes the drug himself and records his experience, which quickly turns sour and ends in his disappearance. His old college friend Anne Roland (Katia Winter), who is now a journalist herself, begins to investigate and quickly finds herself picking up where he left off. The trail leads to a gonzo counter-culture author named Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine, doing his best Hunter S. Thompson impersonation), who helps her track down the source of a disturbing radio signal with the hope that it will reveal some answers. But what they find may be more shocking than they even imagined…
After a tense opening segment, Banshee Chapter struggles briefly to find its voice and get the ball rolling. This is partly due to the numerous different visual styles at play, as well as the slow-burning structure of the story. I’ve never been a fan of entire feature films told in the found-footage style as it can be overwhelming in such large doses, so I was quite pleased to see how Erickson incorporated segments that are brief and effective, weaving in found-footage, security camera playback, and old archival “CIA” material in a way that works to break up the main narrative and add some variety to the visual storytelling. However, I did find it occasionally distracting that the main narrative was shot with such a shaky handheld style, when a more controlled cinematic look may have elevated the material somewhat and helped to limit the number of confusing jump-scare instances where you can hardly make out what is happening.
Thankfully, the performances are strong enough to keep this from being anything more than a minor complaint. The beautiful Katia Winter does a decent job of sustaining interest through the slow start, but things quickly shift into high gear when Ted Levine enters the scene as Blackburn, offering a delightfully unhinged performance that steals the show and breathes new life into the rest of the film. Winter and Levine also have great chemistry, and end up complementing each other in a way that is darkly comedic, showing that Erickson as a writer/director isn’t afraid to add a little humour into the mix while slowly working his way under your skin.
The climax is suitably dark and tense, with some great scares a few interesting plot revelations to consider. That being said, from an action standpoint it does feel somewhat anti-climactic, with a lot of running in circles, ineffective hiding techniques (why doesn’t she pick up the gun?!) and an all-too convenient way of wrapping things up. If you’re like me, you may wish they would have shown just a little bit more of the monster, but that is also the beauty of a film like Banshee Chapter: it winds you up with its unsettling story and enigmatic creatures, and then releases you back to the world, forcing your imagination to fill in the blanks on your way home. Despite its plot-holes and shortcomings, this is a film that strives to scare its audience on a deeper level, and for that I believe it deserves recognition. Its subtleties may be lost on those with a short attention span or a desire for extreme bloodletting, but anyone with an open mind looking for a genuinely creepy time at the movies will find much to appreciate in this low-budget gem. At the very least, it’ll make you think twice before indulging in any military-grade hallucinogens…
R A T I N G : 4 / 5 S T A R S
Banshee Chapter is now available on DVD and VOD courtesy of levelFILM.