DIRECTED BY: Blair Erickson
FEATURING: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillian
PLOT: An investigative journalist searches for a friend who disappeared after taking an experimental hallucinogenic drug.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It has the a solid collection of paranoid/paranormal/psychedelic elements, but it doesn’t push them far enough, ending up as little more than Jacob’s Ladder lite.
COMMENTS: With a plot hinging on the CIA’s MKUltra mind control experiments and bits of fringe lore about the endogenous hallucinogen DMT, “numbers stations,” and H.P. Lovecraft references thrown in for seasoning, The Banshee Chapter might have been scripted by paranoid paranormal AM radio host Art Bell. The movie’s style is as all-over-the-place as the conspiratorial plot; journalist Anne Roland (Winter) begins narrating the story as a documentary, and the movie incorporates (sometimes out-of-context) actual newsreels together with scripted “found footage” scenes of James Hirsch (McMilian) experimenting with the rare drug at the center of the story. As the tale progresses the documentary conceit is ditched in favor of a typical third-person omniscient view of proceedings (although the shaky handheld camera continues to remind us of the movie’s supposed vérité origins). This lack of consistency isn’t a huge issue; if you like the movie, you might think that it contributes to its ragtag, homemade charm. The bigger problem is that, despite having so much going on, Banshee Chapter frequently lapses in talkiness and confusion. Without much of a budget for effects or locations, plot points are often given through speculative dialogue. And even when things happen, it’s not always made clear why Anne is following up certain clues: I couldn’t figure out exactly what led her to follow up on the shortwave radio broadcasts, for example, or what her plan was once she finally tracked down a source of the drug. Further, the horror of the story comes more from sudden screams and pale faces popping into frame than creeping dread and paranoia: the main effect of the experimental drug seems to be to induce jump scares, and the movie’s climax is a sprint through a spookhouse. The one really good idea that the screenplay implements is the inclusion of Hunter S. Thompson-inspired novelist Thomas Blackburn (Levine) as a key character. Levine plays Thompson/Blackburn with laid-back, boozy seediness, as opposed to the amped-up comic caricatures Johnny Depp and Bill Murray adopted in portraying the cult novelist. It’s a lot of fun to see this character out of his comfort zone, tromping through the dark desert in an “X-Files” scenario. If you have a passion either for paranormal culture or for anything Thompson-related, Banshee Chapter may be worthwhile; for those without a particular interest in these subject, however, it’s not a wild enough ride to justify buying a ticket.
Banshee Chapter is the first feature from director/co-writer Blair Erickson. Alt-Spock Zachary Quinto counts among the film’s numerous producers. After a small but critically successful festival run, the film was released on VOD in December of 2013, and will see a limited theatrical release in January 2014.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It certainly works as a gonzo exposé of some of the twentieth century’s madder moments – but perhaps more importantly, this psychotropic remapping of history never forgets to be proper jump-out-of-your-seat scary.”–Anton Bitel, Grolsch Film Works