Over the last couple of decades, much of the information pertaining to the US Government’s infamous MKUltra human research experiments has been declassified. In many ways the truth is stranger than fiction: US and Canadian citizens were used as guinea-pigs in human behavioral tests often involving mind-altering psychotropic drugs that had lasting and damaging effects on the people they were administered to. The officially sanctioned programs began in the 1950s and were only ultimately curtailed in 1973, and while Freedom of Information requests have helped illuminate the formerly shadowy undertaking, much remains secret, and conspiracy theorists continue to link the dubious and sinister tests to events from the Jonestown mass suicide to the JFK assassination.
It’s amazing there aren’t more films riffing on the subject: something that clearly occurred to first-time director Blair Erickson, inspiring this, his debut feature. Banshee Chapter is a loopy, lo-fi conspiracy horror taking in college researchers, secret government facilities and a heavily self-medicated writer who, while nominally fictional, seems very familiar. The film even reaches for an air of authenticity by including genuine footage of the scientists involved in MKUltra and the unveiling of its true extent (Bill Clinton makes an appearance in some White House press-conference news footage). But in its linking of the real-life experiments to an existential cosmic threat, the film is also a uniquely gonzo adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s From Beyond, last filmed in 1986 by the post-Reanimator Stuart Gordon.
Banshee Chapter’s own Crawford Tillinghast is James Hirst (Michael McMillian), a postgrad student whose thesis gives the film its title (apologies for the spoiler, but there aren’t any actual banshees). While the Lovecraft story sees Tillinghast opening up the universe by use of a bizarre mechanical apparatus, Hirst’s method is an illicitly procured 150mg of super-dimethyltryptamine. The film opens, found-footage style, with him filming himself taking the CIA hallucinogen, leading to a chaotic freakout sequence and a genuine scare. Thereafter, Erickson switches protagonists to web journalist Anne Roland (Katia Winter), a friend of Hirst’s who resolves to investigate his mysterious disappearance. The trail leads first to counterculture poet and novelist Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), and then on to a creepy abandoned CIA research station in the Black Rock desert, where dark secrets lurk in Chamber 5.
As in Lovecraft, the human pineal gland is the specific site of Banshee Chapter’s madness, although the methodology for accessing its dark magic is different. And while in From Beyond the switch between plains of reality is described as akin to the “cold draught… of a gigantic approaching locomotive”, here for some reason the approach of the altered state is heralded by short wave radio interference and the sound of an ice cream truck: creepy, but baffling and ludicrous, and never adequately explained.
That off-kilter weirdness is key to the film’s strange identity. Narratively it’s all over the place, but that constant feeling of perplexity and wrong-footedness does help maintain an atmosphere of, at times, real dread. Its shifts in and out of documentary found-footage tropes and more conventional – though still handheld – filmmaking are also effective, although the theatrical 3D was completely redundant. Nobody watching the film on disc is missing anything.
The film’s great strength however, is Levine, to all intents and purposes playing Hunter S. Thompson (although Erickson insists the character is a mash-up of Thompson, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary). Blackburn could easily have been – and in many ways still is – a broad caricature, but in Levine’s performance he’s impressively nuanced: amusing but also sinister, tough but also vulnerable, sadistic but likeable. He’s funny and scary and in many ways inexplicable. As such, he’s a perfect metaphor for Banshee Chapter itself.
Banshee Chapter is out on DVD now.
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