Sunday, February 16, 2014

(The) Banshee Chapter (2013)

Because he's writing a book about Project MKUltra, writer James Hirsch (Michael McMillian) acquires a sample of one the project's experimental drugs, and decides to test it out on himself. Things go very wrong indeed for James, for the drug doesn't just seem to open the doors of perception. James disappears, leaving behind blood, some video fragments of his unfortunate experiment and a sober control guy who will disappear too, just a few days later.

James's friend, the journalist Anne (Katia Winter) desperately wants to find out what really happened the day it all went wrong and begins to investigate. Her research soon discloses the drug James took might not have been just your run-of-the-mill experimental military mind control drug. Further inquiries bring Anne on the trail of a disquieting numbers station, and finally to the house of 70s counter culture writer and eternally drunk icon Thomas "smells like Hunter S. Thompson" Blackburn (Ted Levine), who sent the drug to James. Things might not turn out too well for Anne, either, or for anyone else involved, for that matter.

Blair Erickson's The Banshee Chapter is quite an impressive little movie, mixing real world atrocity and the point where conspiracy theory, Americana (in a rather blackly humorous way) and Forteana meet, while explicitly taking its central idea from a Lovecraft tale. It's not the most complicated of movies, nor one loaded with subtext, but it tells its story very well indeed.

I'm tempted to call Banshee Chapter a very straightforward film, but then it is also a film that puts its protagonist in a situation where she isn't at all clear if she's suffering from hallucinations caused by an experimental drug, as well as a film whose idea of horror - apart from "medical" experiments on unwitting subjects - is the thing lurking in the corner of your eye and in the deepest shadows attempting to cross over into the more concrete world. It's probably better to say The Banshee Chapter is as straightforwardly told as this kind of tale ever can be.

Erickson uses a visual style close to that of found footage movies, even though only a minor part of what we see actually is supposed to be found footage, in a successful attempt to first build an idea of the real for the audience it can then all that easier show to be breaking down. It's quite an effective attempt too, particularly because Erickson isn't overdoing that stylistic technique until it becomes mere shtick. I found myself also pleasantly surprised - and I know I'm repeatedly harping on this thing in my write-ups of contemporary films but it truly bothers me - by the film's thoughtful use of colour, using the easier digital post production not to turn the whole film yellow or blue or colourless but to actually give different scenes different, appropriate and mood-building colour schemes of their own that still fit into the visual whole of the movie. It's so nice to see a contemporary first time director putting some thought into this sort of thing instead of just giving up and pretending yellow will have to do.

I found The Banshee Chapter's approach to horror quite effective too, with freak-out moments based more on the things the audience imagines than those it actually sees; even if we see something, we seldom get a good look at it, which fits the nature of the film's threat nicely as well. If you're the kind of person as open to this approach as I am, you will probably be creeped out nicely, or - in some moments - perhaps even a bit more than is generally comfortable. This being a horror film, that's of course a good thing.

As good as is the whole of Banshee Chapter, another movie in the increasing number of low budget and/or independent horror movies that successfully aim for the Weird.

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