There are so many things wrong with “Banshee Chapter” that I honestly don’t know where to begin. I think I’ll start with the fact that writer/director Blair Erickson fashioned an escapist horror movie out of an egregious chapter of American history. This would be Project MKUltra, a sanctioned CIA human research operation founded in the 1950s. Although many files were destroyed when the project was halted in 1973, enough survived to reveal that unwitting U.S. and Canadian civilians were subjected to inhuman medical experimentation – including the administration of psychedelic drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnosis, and physical and psychological torture, just to name a few – for the purposes altering brain functions and mental states. To downplay this atrocity for the sake of a few cheap thrills is appalling and an insult to the victims. For the love of God, why did Zachary Quinto decide to produce this?
Setting history aside altogether, the film is a real mess, all efforts to make it cerebral and ambiguous falling short due to confusing and inconsistent narrative and editorial choices. There are two basic types of scenes. One type has characters standing around, blabbing expository dialogue that ends up explaining absolutely nothing. The other type has characters keeping quiet as they creep wearily through dark hallways and rooms, only to have a monster lunge at them out of the darkness. If you’ve ever walked through one of those elaborately-themed haunted mazes that pop up in amusement parks and cornfields around Halloween, you already have a pretty good idea of how these scenes work. Yes, there are many moments in the film that made me jump. But to what end, apart from a fleeting scare? Story wise, they don’t point to anything that makes sense.
The historical element comes in the form of actual footage from news conferences and interviews with people connected to Project MKUltra. The fictional element combines found footage and an omniscient camera, although it’s sometimes difficult to tell the two approaches apart. The plot, as it were, involves internet journalist Anne Roland (Katia Winter), who wants to uncover the truth about the disappearance of her college buddy, James (Michael McMillian). Footage shot by his friend, who has also disappeared, shows that he somehow obtained a vial of an experimental drug used during Project MKUltra, ingested it, and transformed into ... a frightening distortion of himself. Prior to this transformation, he heard an eerie high-pitched voice and ominously whispered that they were coming. Indeed, immediately after he says this, a shadowy figure runs into view, and with it a screech of music. Then the camera cuts to black.
Anne’s investigation leads her to the home of counterculture writer Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), an eccentric, booze-drenched, nicotine-addicted, drug-infused, mentally unstable Hunter S. Thompson parody. He, along with a female companion of unknown narrative significance, have somehow latched onto the recipe for that Project MKUltra drug and have been manufacturing it. Anne and Thomas join forces when, after it appears that everyone in the house ingests the drug and they have an encounter with a dark entity, they suspect that the drug turns the brain into an antenna and allows beings from another world or dimension to cross through. Hearing this, I thought how strangely similar this sounded to an H.P. Lovecraft story I read back in high school, “From Beyond,” in which a scientist’s machine activates the brain and allows beings from alternate realities to become visible. Lo and behold, Thomas eventually clues Anne in: “Ever hear of H.P. Lovecraft? He wrote this story back in the 1930s....”
The premise in and of itself is basically sound. The screenplay, on the other hand, is so riddled with holes that one wonders if a machinegun was used on it. Sometimes it’s little things, like Anne being able to enter James’ house and obtain the information he gathered about the drug. Since a police interrogation video makes it clear that authorities are investigating his disappearance, would it not stand to reason that his house would be sealed off, and that the keys to the front door would all be seized? At the very least, you’d think every one of his notebooks would be rounded up and housed in an evidence locker. Also consider a scene in the abandoned desert bunker where MKUltra experiments were held in the ‘70s. Although Anne has already seen footage of this place from a videocassette James obtained, she nevertheless doesn’t recognize it when she sees it in person, and even has to ask Thomas what she’s looking at.
But mostly, it’s big things, things that truly are vital to the plot of “Banshee Chapter.” If, for example, the otherworldly beings can only enter our world through someone who has ingested the drug, how can they actively pursue those who haven’t ingested it, like James’ friend – whose fate, incidentally, is never revealed? How can the film open with Anne’s voiceover narration when the ending makes clear that such a thing wouldn’t be possible? If we’re to presume that Thomas and his insignificant female companion have been using this drug recreationally for quite some time, as it’s strongly implied, then why did they not experience its side effects until now? This ties into a plot twist reserved for the tail end, which rather poorly reveals what role a specific character had to play and calls into question how this drug is supposed to work within the context of the story. I could go on, except I’ve now got a splitting headache.