Review: Banshee Chapter / Cert: 15 / Director: Blair Erickson / Screenplay: Blair Erickson / Starring: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian / Release Date: Out Now
Banshee Chapter’s intentions are declared even before a single actor appears on screen. A montage of real footage of American officials, among them Bill Clinton, sets out the realities of the MKUltra project that experimented with hallucinogenic materials on human subjects. The internalising of terror, the loosened grip on reality and the clandestine nature of the project itself make it an irresistible subject for horror movies, especially those such as Banshee Chapter, that suggest that even what we do know about the project is just a fraction of the story.
The film follows young journalist Anne (Winter) as she traces the footsteps of her college buddy James (McMillian), who disappeared while conducting a filmed experiment with the synthetic drug, DMT-19. Hooking up with Thomas Blackburn (Levine), a counterculture writer and Hunter S. Thompson in all but name, Anne’s journey takes in conspiracy theory, malevolent government agencies, radio signals, extra-dimensional beings and sheer hallucinatory terror. The H.P. Lovecraft story From Beyond is a strong influence, pervasive enough to warrant a hand-waving by Blackburn.
The narrative’s horror is drawn largely from chemical, psychological and technological sources, while the film’s thrills take the form of creeping dread and sudden, emergent jumps. It’s a neat way of transferring the horror from the chemically-altered minds of the characters to the viewer. While it places the secret experiments front-and-centre, interpolating gruesome images from them, it also makes light sketches of the wider implications of the project and of the link between state malevolence and the counterculture that purportedly opposed it.
Banshee Chapter is carried well by Winter, whose clipped English accent sounds distinctly odd in the western US setting (while also bringing a welcome sense of precision to the early voice over). Levine clearly had a great time playing Blackburn, serving up several laughs in his portrayal as the bad boy outsider of American letters.
The film was produced on a limited budget and, while this shows, director Blair Erickson makes a virtue of the restriction, cultivating a mise-en-scene that is by turns lonely and claustrophobic. The desert setting is an appropriate one, offering a contrast with the close terror of the interior scenes and suggesting that the prying eyes of the public are very far away indeed.