Directed by Blair Erickson
What the government tells you is nowhere near as frightening as what they keep hidden under lock and key. One such example is MKUltra, the CIA’s once top secret program that explored the use of chemicals and mind control on unwilling subjects from 1953 – 1973, when it was finally shut down. This program, shrouded in mystery and an alleged source of severe forms of psychological and physical torture, serves as the subject for Blair Erickson’s psychological thriller, The Banshee Chapter.
The film opens with real footage concerning MKUltra – interviews, press conferences, and more, all of which seek to shed some light on what’s to come. It then quickly jumps to James Hirsch (Michael McMillian), a writer working on a book about MKUltra, disappeared after taking 150mg of the supposed mind-altering known as DMT-19. The film then kicks into gear, following a journalist named Anna Roland (Katia Winter) as she seeks the help of Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), a counter-culture writer who supplied James with the drug, in finding out what happened to James and whether or not he was involved in some sort of government conspiracy.
The Banshee Chapter has its hand in three separate sub-genres of horror; opening with elements of found footage and blending it with a healthy dose of faux-documentary, the film quickly transitions into a traditional narrative that cuts back and forth between the story and old footage of experiments conducted by MKUltra. It keeps things interesting and filled with suspense, though at times the constant back and forth between supposed footage of the experiments and Anna’s quest interrupts any momentum the previous scene had. The film also has a tendency to rely on cheap scares, namely the distorted face popularized by Grave Encounters; it’s not a found footage film, despite early suggestions that it might be, yet it still manages to rely on the tropes that we just wish would all die a quick death.
The Banshee Chapter has the added bonus of Levine, who steals the show as a drug addled counter-culture writer whose familiarity with MKUltra and the mysterious DMT-19 may be more than just a passing interest in mind-altering chemicals. His deep voice and alcoholic drawl fills the void of personality left by Winter, who’s serviceable in the role of Anna but doesn’t bring much in the way of a distinct character. As an added bonus, Levine has one of the best lines in recent memory, no doubt owed to his I-don’t-give-a-damn demeanor, brought about by his character’s years of drug and alcohol use. He’s a far more damaged version of Hunter S. Thompson, and he completely owns the role.
The most interesting aspect of The Banshee Chapter lies in its ability to keep you guessing despite a fairly predictable “twist” ending. Despite some expository explanation, the implications of the DMT-19 are never truly revealed in full, allowing for an ambiguous ending that almost begs for a follow-up viewing to see if there was something you may have missed. This, to me, is the mark of a good horror film, and while its flaws might prevent it from straying into truly great territory, its original premise and approach make it one of the better indie horrors of the year.