Movie Review: “The Banshee Chapter”

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  • Release Date: 1/10/2014
  • Running Time: 87 minutes
  • Written By: Blair Erickson
  • Directed By: Blair Erickson, Daniel J. Healy
  • Starring: Katia Winter, Michael McMillian, Ted Levine, Jenny Gabrielle, Vivian Nesbitt

Movie Review: “The Banshee Chapter”

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In the 1950′s and 60′s, the U.S. government performed immoral and dangerous experiments on test subjects with no idea what they were in for. While the scientists and chemists ran the gamut, they primarily concerned LSD, and forever altered some of their patients, as they attempted to administer and develop mind-controlling drugs. The program, Project MK-Ultra, wasn’t officially stopped until 1973 and wasn’t brought to public attention until years later. THE BANSHEE CHAPTER is a fairly clever, Lovecraftian modern day update of that very story, adapting the found footage conceit to bridge the past and present day for its proceedings. It’s also rather timely, with public skepticism of the government at an all-time high, thanks to NSA surveillance and, well, you name it.

The film begins with real footage, including incredulous film of a chemist admitting that he was never preoccupied with the welfare of the patients that underwent testing, and Bill Clinton offering a public apology for what happened decades previous. Then the grainy footage transitions to James Hirsch (TRUE BLOOD’s Michael McMillian, Steve Newlin to you), who’s investigating the government conspiracy today. The film substitutes LSD for Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a potent hallucinogenic that is making the rounds around the country. The title of the film refers to what everyone under DMT sees, terrifying entities coming for them, though you’ll find very little Banshees or monsters in the movie, unfortunately.

To complete his book on the subject, James manages to get his hands on some real, government grade DMT, from his “friends in Colorado” (which sounds about right). He takes it, and has his friend Renny videotape and observe the effects. At first, there’s nothing. Then, James starts to hear eerie old music and radio interference…then things get nutty and the video becomes fractured, jumping back and forth, including some spooky images, blood, and loud noises. When we pick things up, Renny has been apprehended by the local sheriff, and James is officially missing. Renny can’t explain it, and ends up being taken 72 hours later. It’s certainly familiar, for sure, but an effective open all before the credits, thanks to the concept.

Now it’s up to James’ former college bestie Anne (the luminous Katia Winter, who you’ll recognize from SLEEPY HOLLOW or DEXTER) to jump down the rabbit hole and figure out what fate befell her friend. Anne’s an online journalist (but of course). She soon arrives at the cabin in the woods where James took the drugs (bad idea), and encounters the same strange music, the indistinguishable female voice, and random numbers emanating from the radio. She also happens upon James’ notes and work, including some old Project MK-Ultra tapes that unfold throughout the movie. The conceit of a person investigating the mysterious disappearance of a friend is a staple of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, and the brief glimpses we get of the denizens of the bad trip resemble twisted Innsmouth citizens.

Thanks to a local radio expert/engineer/old man in a shop, Anne learns about “numbers stations,” mysterious short wave radio stations with unknown origins. He helps her track where the signal is strongest, on the outskirts of the Black Rock desert (in Nevada, known for housing Burning Man, another nice wink from the filmmakers, which includes executive producer Zachary Quinto), and again, is greeted by the strange radio frequencies…this time buoyed by a creepy hooded figure.

Thanks to help from her co-worker Olivia (Vivian Nesbitt), who’s merely there to expedite the plot and help Anne from solely providing exposition to herself, she determines who gave James the drugs: Thomas Blackburn, the film’s stand-in for Hunter S. Thompson, a burn-out writer still getting arrested daily thanks to his penchant for public urination and still raging drug use. It’s no accident that the movie picks up when a disheveled and crotchety Ted Levine (MONK, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) arrives to invite Anne to his house to do drugs. From there, the two track down Chamber 5, where the original tests occurred (a few of which we see and are some of the highlights of the flick), and the evil lurks.

While the film is formulaic, it’s mostly gripping and entertaining despite its flaws. In other words, I’ve had far worse bad trips than this one.  Maybe it’s because I eat up the conspiracy stuff, and find the mind-control drug experiment to be a fascinating lift off for horror territory, but THE BANSHEE CHAPTER works. Monster kids will, justifiably, want MORE creatures. As we all know, not seeing the monster is an effective way to build tension, but THE BANSHEE CHAPTER never capitalizes on it, leaving out the money shot, or some serious looks at the Lovecraftian denizens haunting the drug addled brains of the U.S. There isn’t much in the way of character development, but Winter and Levine manage to make things go down much smoother than the infernal blue liquid that threatens the film’s inhabitants.

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