Film Review: Banshee ChapterFirst-time director/co-writer Blair Erickson's <i>Blair Witch</i>-style mind-freak successfully mines the history of U.S. government behavioral-modification-through-chemistry programs to shivery effect in this spooky semi-found-footage shocker.
Banshee Chapter opens with real documentary footage pertaining to the CIA's notorious Cold War-era MKUltra experiments with psychedelic drugs and contemporary faux-documentary footage of earnest post-graduate James Hirsch (Michael McMillian of HBO's “True Blood”), who disappeared while writing a book on MKUltra casualties. He was especially interested in subjects dosed with mind-scrambling drugs like DMT-19 who reported mysterious encounters with disturbing "entities" that seemed to originate in another dimension; they were to have been the subject of the book's "Banshee Chapter."
The police suspected Hirsch's friend and cameraman, Renny (Alex Gianopoulos), but when Renny vanished a few days later, the case went cold. Only Hirsch's college friend Anne Roland (Katia Winter of TV's “Sleepy Hollow”), now a reporter for the website Rising Journal, cares enough to launch a real investigation, and it takes her down one scary rabbit hole that leads to long-buried secrets, lies and prickly, Hunter Thompson-esque counterculture novelist Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), a ’70s casualty who may not be as crazy as he appears.
Starting with Ringu and The Blair Witch Project and a trippy Ken Kesey overlay, Banshee Chapter rolls together its disparate influences into one big ball of weirdness, from shortwave "number stations" broadcasting freaky messages—tinkly music-box tunes, electronically altered voices droning numbers and disconnected words in multiple languages—into America's vast desert wastelands to H.P. Lovecraft's eerily prescient short story “From Beyond,” about a scientist whose pineal-gland experiments open a gateway between our world and an alternate reality filled with restless monsters looking to relocate.
Erickson elicits strong performances from his largely unfamiliar cast, while Levine shines as the sly, paranoid, damaged but defiantly resilient Blackburn, whose motto appears to be “Don't let the bastards get you down, and if they do, take down as many as possible with you.” Various eerie locations, including Hirsch's isolated cabin; empty, poorly lit two-lane highways; and a huge, half-completed McMansion complex in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada add to the carefully calculated suspense—so many places for something to come out of.
Ultimately, Banshee Chapter isn't a game-changer, but it's a tight, neatly constructed little shocker that delivers what it promises—would that many bigger films could say the same.