Tag Archives: paranoia

The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate 1
The Manchurian Candidate

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 23 February 2015

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: John Frankenheimer

Writers: George Axelrod, John Frankenheimer

Based on the novel by: Richard Condon

Cast: Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, James Gregory, Henry Silva

USA 1962

126 mins

Political and conspiracy thrillers do not always age well. Many of them are so firmly anchored in their day and age that the passing of time and changes in society render them naïve, illogical or ridiculous. John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate is certainly of its time: the era of the Cold War, Reds under the bed, a succession of Asian wars and the McCarthy witch hunts, the Cuban missile crisis, not to mention the Kennedy assassination, which it is often seen as prefiguring. So why does it retain its ability to shock and its relevance to generation after generation? Because for all the James Bond shenanigans and the talk of Communists and Chinese, it’s not really about any of those things.

At first The Manchurian Candidate seems to play out like a comedy. Major Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra, an excellent performance he considered his personal best) has been having nightmares. He sees himself and his unit from the Korean War sitting in a hotel lobby, bored out of their minds, while a local horticultural society holds a meeting about hydrangeas. Then the image changes; now they’re in a lecture hall surrounded by Russian and Chinese officials, and it’s not flowers they’re discussing but the fact that the hated sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has been brainwashed and reprogrammed as a remote control assassin. These hints and half-glimpses are enough to convince Marco and his superiors that something serious is under way. Meanwhile, Shaw’s domineering mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and her boozy, under-intelligent husband Johnny Iselin (James Gregory) are revealing to the world that large numbers of ‘card-carrying communists’ have infiltrated key US government departments.

It’s a move straight out of the McCarthy playbook, and Iselin is a scathing, deliberate caricature of McCarthy (Richard Condon’s original novel was published two years after the senator’s death). Like McCarthy, Iselin never actually provides any concrete evidence to back up his claim; after all, he only says there are 57 communists in the Department of Defense because he happened to see a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup that morning. In private Iselin is dominated by his brilliant, callous wife, and on screen Gregory is overshadowed by a captivating Lansbury performance. It’s only when it becomes clear just how willing she is to mentally, spiritually and eventually physically obliterate her son in furtherance of her own ambitions that Eleanor Iselin Shaw becomes one of the cinema’s most memorable villains. By that point the Chinese and Russians have long since faded into the background, their hackneyed representations rendered obsolete (and unnecessary) by Eleanor’s diabolical schemes, schemes that go much further than Communist takeovers.

Ultimately that’s the reason why The Manchurian Candidate has lasted better than its contemporaries. Not only is the central conspiracy entirely feasible and practical, but in just a few minutes it’s possible to come up with a sizeable number of examples from history where similar things have been tried and (for the more paranoid viewer) have quite possibly succeeded. Whether you’re in favour of remakes or not, a post-9/11 reworking of The Manchurian Candidate was an utterly logical step, and the surprising quality of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version suggests that certain points still need to be made.

Jim Harper

Watch the original theatrical trailer:

Banshee Chapter

Banshee Chapter
Banshee Chapter

Format: DVD + VOD

Release date: 27 January 2014

Distributor: 101 Films

Director: Blair Erickson

Writers: Blair Erickson, Daniel J. Healy

Cast: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian

Germany/USA 2013

87 mins

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.

Sean Hogan

Watch the trailer: