United States. Directed by Blair Erickson, 2013. Starring Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillan. 87 minutes.
Clandestine medical experiments, government mind-control projects, extradimensional entities and the works of H.P. Lovecraft: what do they all have in common? Banshee Chapter, that’s what. Plus, numbers stations! I’m the sort of freak who cues up The Conet Project as casual listening, so when I heard about this (thanks Adrian!) I knew I would be there, with bells on.
Katia Winter (Sleepy Hollow) stars as Anne Roland, a web journalist researching her college friend James’s disappearance. James, a struggling writer working on a book about the U.S. government’s mind-control projects, vanished after taking a drug the CIA reputedly used in its MKULTRA experiments. Central to the case is the fact that many of the MKULTRA subjects reported terrifying encounters with…”entities”…while under the influence of the drug. Anne’s research brings her to the doorstep of Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), an eccentric, reclusive, burned-out novelist with a head full of wild theories and wilder revelations. What did James get himself involved in, and who–or what–is responsible for his disappearance?
Banshee Chapter’s story (inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s weird-fiction classic “From Beyond”) has a distinct retro vibe; sometimes it feels like the sort of thing that would have been made in the wake of The X-Files’ popularity in the mid-to-late-’90s, and at other times it resembles an alternate-universe version of the third-season Fringe episode “6955 kHz” (which uses a lot of the same elements). While the plot occasionally gets a bit creaky–very few of the twists and turns genuinely surprise–the script makes up for with fascinating characterization–particularly Blackburn, whom it pitches as a sort of demented love child of Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Pynchon.
Levine–probably still, after all these years, most familiar as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs, digs into the character with gusto, stealing all his scenes with an infectious gonzo energy. (My favorite moment: Blackburn describes scientists strapping down test victims–er, subjects–before administering the drug, and concludes his anecdote with a casual, “That’s entertainment.”) As memorable as he is, he usually leaves room for Winter to do her job–an altogether more restrained performance–and the two play off each other rather nicely.
The direction, by first-timer Blair Erickson, is quite effective: very moody and suspenseful, with a heavy sense of existential dread gradually building throughout the course of the film. Erickson tastefully deploys handheld camera techniques and a faux-documentary structure, occasionally blurring the lines between “subjective” and “objective” (for lack of a better term) footage, something that annoyed me in The Taking of Deborah Logan, but works much better here. He also has a tendency to rely a bit too heavily on jump-scares, but many of them actually work.
The effects work, particularly the CGI, is qualitatively on-par with what you might expect from a production with this budget, but I was quite impressed with the creature design, and Erickson wisely confines the ickiness to quick cuts or shadows. One particular shot of a “monster,” towards the end of the picture…that thing’s gonna give me more than a couple sleepless nights, I think. (Sadly, whoever the damn fool is who designed the U.S. poster decided to incorporate a slew of visual spoilers. Sigh.)
While not as strong an example of “existential horror” as other recent efforts such as Black Mountain Side or The Corridor, Banshee Chapter will remain lodged in your head long after lesser contemporary shock-fests have been relegated to your mental recycling bin.