Taking as its inspiration the C.I.A.’s MKUltra project, an experimental programme in mind control techniques covertly conducted during the latter half of the 20th century, Blair Erickson’s Banshee Chapter promises more than it can ultimately deliver, failing to mine the promise of its richly paranoid subject matter. Despite an entertaining turn from Ted Levine as a Hunter S. Thompson stand-in, the film only shows a Wikipedia-level understanding of its counter-cultural milieu, and ultimately falls apart in a haze of nonsensical writing and sloppy direction.
Opening with real documentary footage relating to the C.I.A. experiments, Banshee Chapter seems to be positioning itself as yet another found-footage genre movie, as we first witness James (Michael McMillian) testing a suppressed drug he claims was used in the MKUltra programme (with predictably dire off-camera results), and then pick up with James’s old college buddy, investigative journalist Anne (Katia Winter), vowing to discover what happened to him (and that’s pretty much all she does, Winter’s rather thankless role basically being to get the audience from A to B and to serve as the ubiquitous final girl in a tight tank top). All of this material is delivered documentary-style, either on camera or in voiceover, but having set itself this formal limitation, the film seems to subsequently shy away from the demands of the sub-genre, only occasionally (and pointlessly) cutting away to ‘real’ video footage at random interludes thereafter (a can’t-be-bothered quality it shares with other such semi-found footage films as David Ayer’s recent End of Watch and Ti West’s upcoming The Sacrament).
In a scene that signposts the all-too-convenient scripting that is to follow, Anne then heads to James’s abandoned house, and within minutes finds a letter written to him from the unnamed Colorado source that supplied the illegal drug, a communication that was handily not discovered by the police. The letter ultimately leads her to Thomas Blackburn, a burnt-out author modelled closely on the aforementioned Thompson. Despite Levine’s game performance, one can’t help but notice the film is largely content to portray the author in one-dimensional gonzo mode, with little suggestion of the fierce intelligence and questioning of authority that fuelled HST’s seminal early work, a sense of which might have added more depth to the narrative. One might argue that Thompson eventually became a victim of his own image, and that Banshee Chapter is only reflecting his real life arc (perhaps not without some regret), but equally the suspicion is that if he’d lived to see his cartoon portrayal here, he’d have been reaching for his gun collection within seconds.
It transpires that Blackburn’s drug opens up levels of perception in the user’s brain, allowing them to see entities existing on other planes; the drawback being that said entities can then also see them back (the lift from Lovecraft’s From Beyond is intentional, the film knowingly establishing its genre cred by having Blackburn reference the actual story). And once they see us humans, they want to ‘wear us’ (a nicely chilling moment of dialogue). The fact that Blackburn has had the drug in his possession for quite some time and yet apparently hasn’t bothered to sample it unfortunately serves to question either his supposed drug fiend status, or else Erickson’s ability to write a coherent, believable screenplay.
Horror predictably ensues thereafter; but sadly, the film avoids any real attempt at constructing scarily effective set-pieces in favour of having one of the unnamed entities pop screeching out of the dark whack-a-mole-style every few minutes. Dodging these clichés as they go, Anne and Blackburn soon follow the trail of convenient plot points to a disused military installation in the desert, abandoned entirely without any governmental security despite the fact that, as we discover, Bad Things are still present there. After which Erickson is content to go through the usual genre motions of wrapping everything up before pulling out a nonsensical ‘aha’ epilogue (the MKUltra drug apparently not the only formula the film’s characters are following).
A shame, because if Banshee Chapter had dug deeper into its characters and the real life conspiracies and horrors of the C.I.A.’s covert activities, we might have had a meaty, subversive genre film worth reckoning with. But as it stands, it’s not enough fear and too much loathing.
Watch the trailer: