Banshee Chapter (2013)

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Did you go through a rebellious counter-culture “fuck the government” phase in high school like I did? Well then, you’ve probably stumbled across MK-Ultra already in your life. If not, then your in for a bit of an eye opening treat. Banshee Chapter is Blair Erickson’s found footage(ish) take on following a friend down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole. It touches on DMT, MK-Ultra, and number stations in a way that it feels like six or seven other easily name checked theories could’ve been left on the cutting room floor. If you feel like seeing what’s at the bottom of this particular rabbit hole, read on through to the spoiler filled other side. We reviewed this movie as a recommendation by a fan. If you have a movie you want us to review, shoot us an email using the link at the bottom of the page.

Reviewed by: Mark

 
 

Plot Synopsis

The film opens with James (Michael McMillian) trying to record a documentary about MK-Ultra and the associated drugs. In order to illustrate the effectiveness of the these drugs on mind control he valiantly falls on sword of journalistic integrity and drops some dank-grade DMT. Shortly thereafter a strange radio station begins to play, the camera gets all shaky, and James disappears after giving us our first jump scare of the movie.

 
 Just your friendly nieghborhood jumpscare popping in to say "hello!"

Just your friendly nieghborhood jumpscare popping in to say "hello!"

 

Jump forward and indeterminate amount of time later (I feel like they reference years at one point), we meet Anne (Katia Winter). She is James’ ol’ film school buddy, and she is becoming obsessed with finding out what happened to her friend. For a few minutes the movie goes into gumshoe mode as she attempts to heat up the cold case. After some relatively fruitful detective work she is able to insert herself into the life of ex-writer Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine). You see, ol’ man Blackburn happens to be the supplier of aforementioned epic drugs. While together with Tom and his druggy friend Callie, Anne is tricked into taking some of that crazy shit herself and things begin to get real. And by real, I mean a hallucinogenic drug induced nightmare. Callie freaks the hell out, turns into a pale blood vomiting ghost and then disappears. Tom and Anne wake up the next morning wondering something along the lines of “holy shit, what the fuck? I have never been this hungover ever. What happened? Where Am I? Who am I? We should find Callie…” I should clarify that those lines are not in the movie, but I’m pretty sure that’s what their inner dialogue would’ve sounded like.

 
 What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

 

As the duo tracks Callie they eventually get back to her lab where she is able to synthesize the DMT. It’s your stereotypical druggy-chemist lab with additional chunks of brain matter scattered about for a good measure. They find that Callie had pinpointed the location of a number station responsible for transmitting the signal the James heard before disappearing.

Tom and  Anne do the most sane possible thing and head to the number station location that is seemingly generating these waves of hell-demons that are sprinkled throughout the plot. They find an abandoned military base, and when exploring find a vat filled with… uhhh… mermaid? This thing is apparently the source for this demonic number station and they decide to do the only sensible thing and set this  monster that is submerged in water on fire. Tom offs himself in the process, but as the mer-demon dies so to do the denizens of hell that had been pursuing our protagonists.

 
 My little mermaid remade in live action as directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

My little mermaid remade in live action as directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

 

Anne recovers in the local police precinct (that she apparently just teleported to?) with her friend from work. She explains that everything is better now and she knows what happened to James. Namely, he turned into a monster and this is somehow a comforting fact. When Anne hears the same radio station start to play over the precinct speakers she realizes that A.) Everything is really fucking not okay and B.) The monsters are transmitted through touch and not just drug use. When she turns back to her friend from work, she sees that she is severely disfigured and possessed by one of the monsters. (Sad trombone noise plays). End.


What the Movie Does Right

This movie really leans into the conspiracy theory aesthetic. You hit all the greats: MK-Ultra, DMT, Ken Kesey/Hunter S Thompson, number stations. I’m surprised there weren’t a few throw away lines in here about hidden messages in music played backwards and how jet fuel can’t melt steel beams. All of these are real things that have A LOT of material ready for you to dive into online. Seriously, if you’ve never heard about it, stop reading this and go look into Project MK Ultra. It’s one of the most fascinatingly devilish evil fucked up things our government has ever done, and the fact that we know so much about it is crazy. Anyway, by playing up these ideas the movie is able to cash in on years of “based on true events” type story elements without actually doing much work. It’s a lot of bang for their buck, and will keep you interested for a number of reasons.

The creatures. I didn’t touch heavily on these in the synopsis because, frankly, the narrative of the movie is a bit unfocused and if you want me to touch on everything it would take about five pages. That being said, there are creatures scattered throughout this movie that are essentially the hollowed out husks of people that have been taken over by monsters from another dimension that take over your brain when you take DMT… and they look pretty awesome. Even if they’re only on screen for a few fractions of a second the shock value is high enough that it works. Even going back to do a freeze frame for a screen grab I found that they look good, which means that not having them on screen for long periods is more of a stylistic choice than a budgetary consideration.


What the Movie Does Wrong

Thomas Blackburn is an impossible dude to like. Ted Levine does a good job within the confines of the script, but he’s playing a caricature of a larger than life figure who himself had turned himself into a caricature. That’s a lot of layers to digest, and they all point to a very brash person who is damn near impossible to watch. And he’s on screen for like 70% of the film. It’s revealed at the end that he was one of the original experiment victims, I suppose to humanize him and excuse his disposition, but I don’t really care if you have an excuse for being an asshole.... You’re still just an asshole.

 
 The flashbacks themselves were also more confusing than interesting.

The flashbacks themselves were also more confusing than interesting.

 

There are a lot of other issues with the script as well. Like  I said earlier, the story is a bit unfocused as a whole, and is really more of a vehicle to jump from conspiracy to conspiracy than to actually weave a throughline that makes sense. At one point Tom literally just states that the movie is based on an HP Lovecraft novel. Two issues with that… One, the Lovecraft story they are  attempting to reference does not share much in the way of similarity with this movie, and two you can’t just fucking tell your audience that you are referencing something if you’re doing a bad job of it. That doesn’t make your attempt any better and it just sounds like a desperate attempt to win fan points.

Lastly, there are a lot of lighting issues with this movie.  It is sooooo dark, and everyone always has a flashlight. They just refuse to use it, because to shine the light on anything would likely expose the budget. I think this trick can be used well in certain cases, but  this movie draws a lot of attention to the fact that there is something in the room with these people, and everyone just chooses not to look at it. I don’t know if this is a script complaint or an effects complaint, but it definitely falls into one of these two buckets.


Ratings (1-10)

Story: 5.5 - I like the relatively unique story and the inclusion of all of the conspiracy theories makes this thing more interesting than it has any right to be. However, if you focus to hard on the story you’ll find that there’s a lot of extraneous fat that distracts from the overall purpose of the movie.

World-Building / Immersion: 6 - This benefits greatly from the fact that if you don’t know what is being referenced you are due for a fun ride through wikipedia. There is a distinct chance this movie will teach you something and as a result you’ll be invested and paying attention to all of the little details being discussed in the script.  Also, since I haven’t said it yet, the performances of all main characters are actually pretty good and Katia Winter is a full fledged badass.

Scare-Factor: 4 - After we discussed this on the podcast I feel like I should’ve bumped this score up a bit. I think if you are relatively uninitiated to horror the images in this one might haunt you. I think I went this low because it’s mostly jumpscare fueled, and because the silliness of Blackburn’s character undercuts most of the serious tension. That being said, I think you could easily argue for a higher value.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6.5 - This is the tale of two ratings. At times you can see the corners that were cut in the making of the movie. Some of the sets are very clearly just open sound stages, and the lack of sufficient lighting is maddening for most of the movie. However, the creatures look great and the number station jingle is appropriately unnerving.

Overall: 5 - I’m conflicted on this one because it’s so unique, but I think ultimately the issues with the narrative and the difficulty I had with stomaching one of the two main characters lead me to call this one “slightly below average.” I think this movie is a hard recommend to people of a certain demographic, and would go over very well in a dorm room in front of a bunch of stoners, but outside of that setting I don’t know if there is much of an audience that I would rush to recommend this to.