December 12, 2013 (U.S. VOD)
Blair Erickson, Daniel J. Healy (story)
Ted Levine as Thomas Blackburn
Katia Winter as Anne Roland
Michael McMillian as James Hirsch
Monique Candelaria as Patient 14
In the 1950s and 1960s in the United States the CIA headed a research program with the code name MKUltra. The purpose of this program was to experiment with various method of behavioral engineering of humans, and mind control. This program used a number of unsavory tactics to push human beings to their limits, including hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, torture, and famously the administration of LDS and other chemicals to unwitting test subjects. The reality of this program is well documented, and has been apologized for as recently as by Bill Clinton during his presidential administration. Anecdotally, the United States Government is sometimes credited with the introduction of LDS to the masses, and in a large part is primarily responsible for the “Flower Child” movement of the 1960s. (The fist part of this is from Wikipedia, and the last part is from a girl named Pam that I knew in College. I wonder what happened to her?)
The film The Banshee Chapter, directed and co-written by newcomer Blair Erickson with a story written by equally unknown Daniel J. Healy, uses this foundation of historical fact as the jumping off point of The Banshee Chapter, distributed by XLrator Media (also responsible for such films asBigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes (2012), Under the Bed (2013) and American Mary (2013). XLrator has a penchant for off the wall horror films and thrillers, and The Banshee Chapter is no exception. Kudos to the talent scouts at XLrator, as they seem to have a pretty good eye.
After using stock footage and old news clips to set up the reality of the MKUltra project, The Banshee Chapter moves to the story surrounding James Hirsch (Michael McMillian), an aspiring writer, who has apparently obtained some of the very drug oft used during the CIA program and intends to ingest it and document the effects. For a while nothing happens, then he starts hearing strange sounds coming from outside. In a flash of intuition he realizes that someone or something is “here”, and after some quick flashes of mayhem on the hand-held camera it’s clear that that something has somehow altered the man, and taken him away.
The disappearance of James Hirsch makes the news, and comes to the attention of his best college buddy Anne Roland (Katia Winter). Anne is a writer too, but she opted to become a reporter for an online newspaper rather than struggle along trying to sell a novel. Anne decides that her new mission is to find out what happened to her friend, and the investigation leads her to Colorado and the suspected source of the drug, the infamous and revered writer Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine).
The Banshee Chapter is very good, compelling in fact. The story is enveloping, especially since the basis is found in historical fact and the story highlights the possible realities of those experiments that have been kept under wraps. This film is a conspiracy theorists dream that illustrates the differences between the actual happenings during the program’s heyday and what was reported to the public through the use of film clips supposedly taken from the government archives and news footage of the participants being interviewed about the program after it was shut down. Unlike many other docu-dramas that attempt to blend documentary footage, news footage and dramatization, the fabricated interviews and news stories are realistically portrayed, and artfully edited. There is never a moment when either side of the equation feels contrived or irrelevant, allowing for those sought-after moments of losing oneself in the story to present themselves.
The acting performances are appropriate and natural, considering the film includes prepared interviews ala documentary, self-footage ala YouTube and theatrical performances ala a movie feature. Each piece plays as one imagines it should considering the formulation of the narrative, and expert storytelling is the result.
In addition to the documentary feel with dramatization, there are also moments of actual horror that are reminiscent of some of the more chaotic scenes in films like Aliens or Pitch Black. The attempt here is to lure the audience into the story and then scare the crap out of them, and it works. The mixing of docu-drama and feature, straight shooting and hand-held, and past footage with present action is superb and allows for an experience rather than simply watching a film, if you let it.
The budget for The Banshee Chapter is obviously low, so there are not a lot of frills to be found here. There is some CGI used occasionally, but thankfully sparingly so as to avoid the cheap, cheap, cheap feel that such effects can bring along with them. All in all, Blair Erickson has a winner on his hands with this one; the risk being that the presentation is so unique that it may be hard to top. We will be watching with great interest to see what Erickson has planned next, but in the meantime The Banshee Chapter is definitely recommended.