Directed by Blair Erickson; starring Katia Winter, Ted Levine
Winners don’t use drugs. And people who don’t want their skin to be worn like a ratty old t-shirt by monsters from beyond should definitely stay away from secret government hallucinogens.
We all learned this in Drug Abuse Resistance Education classes, though, right? Well, the characters in Blair Erickson’s intriguing and unique Banshee Chapter seemed to have skipped those lessons, because there’s no shortage of people willing to take DMT-19, a special chemical compound that has extremely unpleasant effects on all those who ingest it—and everyone around them.
Banshee Chapter is very much about drugs—and CIA mind control experiments, extradimensional reality, counter culture, number stations, missing persons, the NSA, and so much more. Long story short, this is a movie I loved—it hits a diverse array of subjects, cloaking a not-so-subtle allegory of government malfeasance and existential threat in the wool of a fun horror movie. Watch it, and be scared and entertained. Or, watch it, be scared and entertained, and learn a thing or two.
If I’ve done a poor job of summarizing what this film is about, that’s only a reflection of the film’s diverse and schizophrenic (literally) nature. This is anything but a criticism—Banshee Chapter is a lot of things, but it’s never boring.
The film is inspired in part by the MK Ultra mind control experiments of the mid-twentieth century, wherein the CIA experimented on American citizens, using a combination of drugs and psychological conditioning techniques that crossed into unethical territory. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, is perhaps the program’s most notable graduate, although conspiracy theorists are still considering the program’s legacy to this day. Laugh all you want at this line of thinking—but then go look up how many mass shooters have been on SSRIs or other mind-altering drugs.
Your tax dollars at work
In an abortive found-footage opening (one of my few criticisms of the film is its inconsistent narrative style), we see James (Michael McMillan) taking a rare form of DMT (a real, naturally-occurring hallucinogen that often produces transcendent experiences in its users) sent from his “Friends in Colorado”. Soon the radio starts playing a number station broadcast, and something comes to visit.
With James missing, Anne Roland (Katia Winter), a reporter and James’ best friend from college, decides to search for him. She picks up the bread crumb trail of his recent work—a research project on MK Ultra and a sinister government conspiracy involving DMT-19, pirate radio signals, a mysterious desert compound, and a gonzo counter-culture writer.
Does this sound like a lot to keep up with? It is. The film is not afraid to dive off the deep end. Twisted monsters, a monologue on H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, Ted Levine playing a Hunter S. Thompson-type author and paranoid drug user (“Buy the ticket, take the ride!”), creepy real-world conspiracy implications, and a healthy mix of slow-burn tension and well-executed jump scares keep the movie interesting. Its limitations in budget and the occasionally-flat dialogue are forgiven because the movie is so diverse and interesting; each scene adds something new to the film’s mythos or carries us along a tense and disturbing plot arc. We jump across multiple narrative threads, learning more about the history of MK Ultra, number stations, and possibly-supernatural evil, while dealing with the paranoid anxiety of Anne’s present circumstances.
To describe the story much further would spoil the fun. The narrative unfolds piece by piece, with liberal scares, atmosphere, and plenty of humor to keep the audience off guard and interested. This was my second viewing of the film, and I enjoyed it more than the first. It rewards repeat viewings with little clues and Easter eggs for diligent viewers. While the ending leaves something to be desired—and is about as clear as mud in its implications—the film is, overall, a strong, unique, and refreshing little horror film.
If any of the subjects mentioned above—counter culture, conspiracies, mind control, number stations, Lovecraftian horror—interest you, you’ll have a great time with this movie. Banshee Chapter is the rare direct-to-video horror movie that, despite its limitations, manages to be smart, scary, funny, and socially relevant in its commentary, themes, and technical execution. Fans of high strange events, conspiracy theories, and well-executed horror will find all that and more.
5/5 Intelligence Agency Swine