This review of Banshee Chapter (2013) was originally published on February 27, 2014 at Talkbacker. I’m reposting it today on the Supernaughts due to an upcoming Movies and Stuff podcast that will cover similar subject matter. Enjoy.
So I see you’ve read the title of this review and I’m fairly confident that’s why you’re here. It’s definitely an odd combination, one that is prevalent throughout the film in more ways than one. So how exactly does one create a movie that mixes Lovecraftian horror fiction with Thompson-esque gonzo journalism? I’ll begin with trying to explain Banshee Chapter‘s recipe as best I can without going too heavy into spoiler territory and then I’ll review the overall result.
Step 1: A Pinch of Reality
First you need some truth to wrap the story around. Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo pieces generally revolved around a non-fiction event and spiraled out of control from there. Banshee Chapter sets this up immediately by using stock footage of the United States government announcing the existence of Project MKUltra. This was a real operation led by the CIA that experimented in the behavioral engineering of humans, largely through the use of drugs.
Step 2: Two Teaspoons of Journalism
The movie then cuts to camera footage of James, played by Michael McMillian (True Blood, What I Like About You), who is investigating Project MKUltra. He takes a drug known as DMT-19, which was supposedly used in the experiments, and soon enough he starts to freak out. Somethings coming to get him, the camera starts to mess up, and we’re finally left with a shot of James with jet black eyes and a distorted face.
From here the focus switches to Anne, played by Katia Winter (Sleepy Hollow, Dexter), a reporter and friend of James. She’s worried about his apparent disappearance and decides to investigate it on her own. This basically thrusts her into the first-person narrative role of gonzo journalism for the rest of the film. We still get some footage outside of her perspective, such as various video footage clips of Project MKUltra patients, but for the most part this is now a story of her experiences.
Step 3: One Tablespoon of Lovecraft
Anne finds a ton of interesting information at James’ house and this leads her to a radio expert. He tells her about this phantom radio station that broadcasts strange sounds and music, along with a theory that this station is transmitting from another dimension. If you’re familiar with H.P. Lovecraft, you probably know where this is going.
Yes, Banshee Chapter is loosely based on Lovecraft’s short story From Beyond, which was previously adapted into a movie of the same name by Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Dolls). I didn’t know this before watching the film and I regretfully haven’t seen the Gordon adaptation (shameful, I know) so I can’t compare it to that one, but the film readily makes it apparent that this is a Lovecraftian tale. It even goes so far as to mention his name and this story directly later on in the film.
Step 4: Half a Cup of Thompson
Anna then finds a link to Thomas Blackburn, played by Ted Levine (Monk, The Silence of the Lambs), a counter-culture writer known for his drug use. Banshee Chapter isn’t content to simply use a Thompson-esque style, it decided to bring Thompson right into the movie directly as a character. Sure, his name is Thomas Blackburn on paper, but that’s not going to stop anyone from seeing Levine’s actual performance as Hunter S. Thompson. When Anna finds him, he supposedly tricks her into taking DMT-19 with him and then shit really hits the fan.
Step 5: A Dash of Horror
The rest of the movie consists of Anna and Thomas teaming up to figure out what’s really going on and stopping it. Most of the film takes place at night or in dark and shadowy locations, so there is a lingering sense of horror throughout while more information is revealed. There are also a few more traditional scares and creepy figures sprinkled throughout.
For a low-budget indie film with such a hodgepodge of ideas, it actually comes together better than you’d expect. The subject matter is interesting and it reveals small bits and pieces of information at a steady enough pace to keep your attention. The creature effects are subtle (it’s not even close to the gore of Gordon’s From Beyond based on what I’ve seen of it) and used sparingly, but well done overall. I would have liked it to have been scarier though. There are a few good scenes and the rare jump scares are surprisingly effective, but a little too much time is spent with the investigative angle that leads us to them.
The movie is written and directed by newcomer Blair Erickson, this being his debut in both respects. The direction is nothing special, it’s straight-forward and gets the job done, but the writing is great, definitely his strong suit. He tells a good story and doesn’t spell everything out for you. There is some hand-holding along the way, but it never feels pandering or insulting.
Acting wise it’s fairly standard. McMillian is good in his mostly brief role, Winter does a fine job as the lead, and none of the minor roles seem out of place. You can’t fault any of these performances, but none are really deserving of praise either. However, Levine definitely stands out as the Thompson-like character. At first it seemed a bit too goofy to me, as if he was purely making fun of Thompson, but I got over that rather quickly as his character grew. It’s weird and wild, especially in the beginning, but that’s essentially how Thompson was, so it works.
There isn’t a lot of variety in the horror genre nowadays it seems, so if you’re looking for something a little different, this may fill the craving. It’s a good little movie that pays homage to its influences while also adding some new twists along the way. Not bad for Erickson’s first effort, a name worth keeping an eye on.