Directed by Blair Erickson
Similar to how Renny Harlin’s recent release The Dyatlov Pass Incident took its own approach to a real-life occurrence, director Blair Erickson bases the story of his scientific nightmare The Banshee Chapter on the even more horrifying true history of Project MKUltra, whereby the US government ran covert studies and experiments in mind control using substances such as LSD on both willing and unwilling participants throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Here, however, things are given much more fantastical Lovecraftian flair, and to great effect.
While it isn’t strictly a found footage film, The Banshee Chapter does feature quite a few sequences formed of archival footage, hand-held digital video and in-car dash cams all framed with standard cinematic presentation. One such hand-held sequence is the opening to the story, featuring journalist James Hirsch (McMillian) as he prepares to undertake a personal experimentation with one of the mysterious, mind-altering drugs used in MKUltra trials. Filmed by his friend Renny, James ingests the drug. Instead of tripping out, however, he begins to panic when strange music and voices start to play through a downstairs radio. Feeling the presence of “something” coming closer to the house, James freaks out before disappearing entirely.
Following a trail of blood, the last thing Renny’s camera catches is a quick glimpse of James’ horrifically contorted face appearing from nowhere. Shortly after his interrogation by the police Renny, too, disappears from the face of the Earth.
Determined to get to the bottom of the whereabouts of the two men, James’ friend and colleague Anne (Winter) sets out on a mission to uncover what she can about the MKUltra project, the drugs involved, and how it all ties in to strange broadcasts from indeterminate “numbers stations”. Her search puts her in contact with Thomas Blackburn (Levine), a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired author, counter-culture mini-celeb and drug and gun enthusiast. Seems he’s come into possession of a quantity of the mysterious drug that led to James’ disappearance, and after a particularly unsettling experience with a group test at Blackburn’s place, he and Anna get on the road in order to locate the origins of the otherworldly threat whose attention they’ve now gathered — the mysterious, desert dwelling Chamber 5.
The story of The Banshee Chapter begins on a disquieting note, and gradually becomes even more intriguing as the first act progresses. Becoming rapt in the story isn’t a problem here, and it becomes even more pleasing to the genre fan when the truth behind what’s going on turns out to have more than just a little influence of one Howard Philips Lovecraft. Let’s just say that the human pineal gland is involved, alongside its potential as a transmitter of sorts — the film directly referencing the Lovecraft story in which these same elements are explored. The same themes of man’s meddling with knowledge he was never meant to have and proceeding, blinded by curiosity, towards opening doorways for an inter-dimensional threat are present in spades and handled with supreme effectiveness.
Erickson’s direction is tight, though he does tend to rely on setting us up for a number of repeated (if sufficiently jolting) jump scares. That’s not all that there is to the fear, however, as the impending arrival of the strange beasties is regularly heralded by the impromptu jingling of the deranged music and multi-lingual chanting countdown of Chamber 5’s numbers station. The sound alone is spine-tinglingly effective, and makes an excellent device foreshadowing something very, very bad on the way. The creature effects, when they appear, are startling in glimpses but appear to be very much of the basic variety — a few elongated digits and twisted faces — which leads to slight disappointment considering the Lovecraftian inspiration behind them.
Erickson does well to keep them in the dark in order to preserve the fear, but a few clearer shots of that something approaching from the darkness ahead (or behind) would have served the monster fans among us much more satisfactorily. On a further visual note, it should be stated that there really is no reason to see the film in 3D (though it was apparently shot in stereoscopic 3D, rather than being a post-conversion). Beyond a few instances in Chamber 5 or a creepy abandoned house which sport a nice addition of depth, the 3D doesn’t service the film much at all — in fact, it’s more of a distraction than anything when it comes to HUD-sporting footage from digital cameras or security feeds.
In terms of performances, there’s little to complain about with both of our main characters interacting well, and Winter brings a refreshingly no-bullshit attitude to Anna as she runs headlong into an unfolding nightmare and inevitably threatening future. Stealing the show, though, is Levine with his turn as Blackburn — relishing every scene and chewing the scenery wherever he can as the spaced-out Gonzo writer with a touch of Willie Nelson drug culture hippy sensibility.
Extra note should go to the opening score, which sets the scene nicely with some disconcertingly discordant composition. The Banshee Chapter is enthralling, enjoyably scary and very well crafted — yet if you think this frightens you, take a look into the actual MKUltra trials themselves; something which proves quite easily that real life can usually be much more disturbing than any fiction could ever muster.
4 out of 5