Studio: XLrator Media
Director: Blair Erickson
Writer: Blair Erickson, Daniel Healy
Producer: Stephanie Riggs, Corey Moosa, Christian Arnold-Beutel, Sean Akers
Stars: Katia Winter, Michael McMillian, Ted Levine, Monique Candelaria, Vivian Nesbitt, Jenny Gabrielle, William Sterchi
When her friend mysteriously disappears, a journalist digs into the conspiracy surrounding MKULTRA mind control experiments.
For horror fans, specifically those of author H.P. Lovecraft, it is impossible to hear the words “pineal gland” without immediately thinking of “From Beyond.” Ted Levine’s character in “Banshee Chapter” knows this well, which is why he spouts a handy synopsis of Lovecraft’s yarn while he and the heroine live through a similar version of the surreal story.
“Banshee Chapter” shoots for a “based on a true story” angle by weaving in cloudy facts via archival film clips relating to the CIA’s Project MKULTRA. MKULTRA is well known both by legitimate watchdog groups and by tinfoil hat brigades as one of the crown jewels in the U.S. government’s black-eyed history of covert actions against its own people. For 20 years between 1953 and 1973, test subjects were administered hallucinogenic acid, hypnotized, brainwashed, and mind-wiped in secret for the benefit of scientific advancement.
Research into the clandestine operation brings a small vial of notorious MKULTRA drug DMT into the hands of struggling young writer James Hirsch. While his buddy Renny videotapes the experience, James goes on a bad trip that has him hearing weird radio broadcasts and seeing strange figures in shadows.
After James and Renny disappear under mysterious circumstances, former college flame and current investigative journalist Anne Roland picks up the case. Washed-up and washed-out author Thomas Blackburn acts as Anne’s drug-culture spirit guide as she endeavors to expose the CIA’s organized lies. What the duo uncovers instead is an ethereal plot from a realm where shadowy entities use the drug to break into this reality.
If the intent of the film’s structure is to make the audience feel as if they themselves are hallucinating, then “Banshee Chapter” succeeds. Writer/director Blair Erickson blends period news pieces with his fictional premise and adds small dashes of “found footage” presumably to create a sense of authenticity. However, the inconsistent formatting results in too few “genuine” scenes to sell the realism, and not enough daringness on the fictional side to maintain the entertainment.
Completing the film’s chaotic makeup is a potpourri of elements that can be eerie when used individually for enhancing atmosphere, but lose effectiveness when lumped together haphazardly. A static-filled radio broadcast plays creepy ice cream truck music. Mental patients repeat disconnected phrases in drug-addled trances. Black-eyed creatures open mouths wide and lurch from dark corners. These all have sensory scare value, but without satisfying story context, they play merely as “things” thrown at the viewer.
As is often the case with drugs, the DMT-19 at this story’s center poses major problems. When anyone is on it, there exists an intentional question of what is real and what is imagined. The trouble with this aspect is that it diminishes invested stakes in the characters. Empathy is hard to come by when it is unclear if the onscreen terror may merely be something they will wake up from in a moment.
DMT’s role in the plot grows muddled as “Banshee Chapter” progresses. It comes to be revealed that even those who do not take the drug are still susceptible to the shadow people. The point of this development is to instill a fear that no one is safe, but it reduces the relevancy of the already established backstory.
The nature of the shadow people is also vague to the point of pointlessness. Thrusting arms out unexpectedly is the only thing they do. The entities seem to want nothing more than to grab at ankles from underneath darkened staircases. Seeing them as no more of a threat than an average Halloween maze actor reduces their fright factor to nil.
Ted Levine satisfies the price of admission with a suitably “gonzo” performance as a brain-fried pop author whose popularity has long faded. Levine fills his character at all sides while demonstrating enough restraint to keep the animated personality from turning into over-the-top satire.
Had the script reserved some of that vibrant development for co-lead Katia Winter, her intrepid journalist could have added more than plot advancement. Winter is a talented actress, yet she is only afforded fleeting snippets to demonstrate her range, in such moments as awkwardly spurning a college crush’s kiss or role-playing undercover as an enthusiastic fan of Levine’s. The rest of her role is dryly devoted to straightforward action and plain dialogue.
“Banshee Chapter” arrives two decades too late. It would have been a better fit for 1998, when “The X-Files” was at its small screen peak and the film adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” reintroduced Hunter S. Thompson as the patron saint of psychotropic counterculture.
Saner minds left behind fascinations with conspiracy theories and Gonzo journalism in the artificially-enhanced haze of bygone college days. Meanwhile, “Banshee Chapter” is still busily fusing Art Bell-influenced hysteria with drug-fueled paranoia for its frenetic tale of mind-control experiments and government cover-ups that is not as timely now as it would have been then.
Review Score: 55