Katia Winter stars in BANSHEE CHAPTER.

Banshee Chapter

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 CorridorBanshee Chapter will remain lodged in your head long after lesser contemporary shock-fests have been relegated to your mental recycling bin.

Banshee Chapter

Black Mountain Side

Black Mountain Side

Canada. Directed by Nick Szostakiwskyj, 2014. Starring Shane Twerdun, Michael Dickson, Carl Toftfelt, Marc Anthony Williams, Andrew Moxham, Timothy Lyle, Steve Bradley. 99 minutes.

A scientific outpost isolated in the frozen waste…an ancient artifact, unearthed and exposed to the light of day for the first time in millennia…a powerful force, free and wild and beyond good and evil, manipulating the neuroses and insanities of the humans around it for its own end. Sound familiar? Yet Nick Szostakiwskyj’s Black Mountain Side is more than a retread of The Thing (John Carpenter’s version, natch). It’s a fine specimen of “cosmic horror” that replaces paranoia with outright madness.

Shane Twerdun and Michael Dickson lead a team of archaeologists stationed in the Yukon’s Taiga Cordillera who uncover a long-buried structure of apparent Mesoamerican origin. The odd thing about that is, of course, that the Canadian Arctic is too far north to uncover anything of Mesoamerican origin. Shortly thereafter, the work team flees in the dead of night, the outside world stops responding to radio signals, and a crew member comes down with a strange illness. After that, things get really bad.

Szostakiwskyj soon proves a master of the cinematic environment, giving the camp’s relatively spread-out environs a sense of cloying claustrophobia. The winter wilderness is so engrossing you just might find your local temperature slowly lowering as you watch the film. He also has a keen command of light and shadow, as evidenced by several nighttime exteriors. The effects are quite good, definitely better than one might expect from a low-budget production. The pacing is a bit of a slow burn, but the suspense is so thick you can eat it with a fork.

While the film doesn’t shy away from the visceral, the true horror comes not from the gore but from creeping, existential terror. The puny human mind isn’t built to comprehend the nature of reality, and in the presence of the truly cosmic, it snaps like a toothpick. Indeed, Black Mountain Side could be one of the most effective portrayals of the Lovecraftian ethos yet committed to film–the influence is obvious, even if the C-word (“Cthulhu”) is never uttered. Your mileage may vary when it comes to Szostakiwskyj’s visual interpretation of this awesome force: to me, it was wrong enough to work, but some audiences might find it comical.

Regardless, the “human vs. human” is as important as “human vs. cosmic” when it comes to the film’s conflicts. Twerdun and Dickson head a fine ensemble cast, although some of the supporting players occasionally get lost in the shuffle. Very little backstory comes into play, so most of the character development stems from the chemistry between the actors. You can readily believe that many of the crew members have worked together for years–and Dickson, playing a government-mandated outsider, stands appropriately aloof from them. Standout supporting players include Marc Anthony Williams, Carl Toftfelt, and Nathaniel Gordon as the voice of…well…a voice, at any rate.

Black Mountain Side is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in 2014–the perfect combination of story, location and atmosphere, and sure to please horror fans of all stripes. Don’t let it pass you by.

Review originally published by Cinema Axis.

Black Mountain Side poster