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Monday, January 20, 2014

DVD Review: Banshee Chapter

Banshee Chapter is an unusual and often creepy and frightening horror film dealing with the MK-Ultra experiments. It begins with a title card: “In 1963 the U.S. government began experimenting on unsuspecting Americans with chemical agents intended to induce mind control.” And we see actual news footage regarding those experiments, including President Clinton’s speech confirming that “Thousands of government-sponsored experiments did take place at hospitals, universities and military bases around our nation. Some were unethical.” The film really starts off as a documentary, which is an interesting approach.

It does a fairly good job of keeping the documentary feel, mixing in some of that “found footage” stuff that is so popular these days. A writer named James (Michael McMillian) disappeared after obtaining and ingesting a government-created chemical. His friend Renny shot video during the experiment (which provides some of the “found footage”), and interestingly he too disappeared soon afterwards. Banshee Chapter follows James’ friend Anne Roland (Katia Winter) as she attempts to find out just exactly what happened to them.

The video that Renny shot features some strange sounds, like an odd recording, that both James and Renny hear, though only James ingested the chemical. (Also, obviously, we hear it, and most of us haven’t ingested any drugs lately.) James then seems paranoid, telling Renny that something is coming toward the house. There’s a shadow at the window, and then intermittent creepy images.

Anne first goes back to James’ house. It’s an interesting scene because it’s quiet. We hear just the sounds of her opening drawers and such as she looks around, finding notebooks regarding MK-Ultra, until she finds a letter and reads it aloud. So when there is a sudden pounding downstairs, it’s truly startling. (She doesn’t discover what made the noise.)

Her search leads her to an expert on number stations, who tells her that the sounds on the video tape originated from a shortwave station. He’s heard this particular broadcast before, and tells her the general area in the desert where it’s likely coming from. Her drive out to the desert provides more creepy moments.

Her investigation leads her to a writer named Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), who is clearly patterned on Hunter S. Thompson. Before we meet him, we see images of him and his books, the title of one of them being Saga Of The Swine (Hunter Thompson wrote a book titled Generation Of Swine). And Anne tells us, “His books were written in a haze of pills, booze, and, to some, schizophrenic genius.” And there is footage of him firing guns.

When Anne finally tracks him down, and he invites her back to his place to ingest the chemical, the similarities to Hunter S. Thompson become too much. His home is decorated with guns and United States flags. Ted Levine wears sunglasses inside, and has a cigarette dangling from his mouth. And he delivers his lines with a sort of mumble that Thompson was famous for. And then at one point, he directly quotes Thompson (without attributing it to him): “There’s no sympathy for the devil. Keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride.” That’s really crossing a line, especially as they’re calling the character Thomas Blackburn, not Hunter Thompson.

The film gets very creepy from there, and has some truly frightening scenes. There is other “found footage” of the MK-Ultra experiments which is unsettling. But I don’t like the film’s use of Hunter S. Thompson so precisely. It’s not cool, and it kept pulling me out of the film. And if you know how Hunter died, then you know how this character dies too. It’s a shame, because the film is really good otherwise. (And, by the way, if the filmmakers wanted to pick an author who was involved with government drug experiments, they should have chosen Ken Kesey.)

Special Features

The DVD includes four short behind-the-scenes featurettes, each approximately three minutes long. These features bits of interviews with director and co-writer Blair Erickson, producer Stephanie Riggs, producer Corey Moosa, and actors Jenny Gabriel, Ted Levine, and Katia Winter. Blair Erickson talks about why he wanted to write about the MK-Ultra experiments, and talks about some of the things in the film that are based in reality. There is some behind-the-scenes footage, including some great footage of a special effects hose coming on a bit too strong. The fourth featurette is all about shooting a low budget film in 3D, but the DVD is not in 3D.

The DVD also includes the film’s trailer.

Banshee Chapter was directed by Blair Erickson, and is scheduled to be released on DVD on February 4, 2014 through XLrator Media.

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