Banshee Chapter (2013) review

The Banshee Chapter posterDirector: Blair Erickson

Starring: Katia Winter, Ted Levine, Michael McMillan

“Every now and then you run up into a night that’s a stone-ass bummer from start to finish. In nights like those, if you know what’s good for you, you hunker down and you hide. This is not one of those nights.” (Thomas Blackburn, Banshee Chapter)

WARNING: This review contains images that may be disturbing. If you’re easily freaked out by creepy faces, it might be a good idea not to scroll down.

First, a history lesson. In the early 1950s, the US government and the CIA started a programme called MKUltra. This was a highly dodgy project in which unwitting US and Canadian citizens were made the test subjects of ‘behavioural engineering’ research.

Over the course of more than two decades, normal Americans were subjected to administration of drugs, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse and torture – by their own government – as a test to see how their mental states and brain functions could be altered.

Project MKUltra was officially halted in 1973, after the Watergate scandal caused the government to get a little jumpy. It wasn’t until years later that the details of the experiments were made known to the public. Naturally, some conspiratorial types believe such experiments are ongoing to this day.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly because it’s all relevant to the plot of Banshee Chapter, and partly so I can fill the screen with enough text to give people a chance to back out after seeing the above warning, without having to see creepy faces.

Boom! Like this one. I told you, innit.
BOOM! Like this one. I told you there’d be creepy faces, innit

Anyway, Banshee Chapter begins with a lad called James carrying out an investigation into one of the unknown chemical drugs the CIA used in one of the aforementioned MKUltra tests.

James is a young documentary filmmaker, and he wants to document what happens to someone who takes the drug. With his friend filming him he drinks the chemical and soon starts to lose it. Suddenly some odd crackly radio music can be heard and weird shit starts going down. But that would be spoiling things.

James goes missing after the incident and his friend is taken into police custody, accused of killing him and hiding the body. Enter Anna, James’ old college chum, who decides to take over the investigation in an attempt to find out both what happened to her friend, and what exactly this chemical does.

As part of her investigation Anna meets Thomas Blackburn, an eccentric writer who used to investigate MKUltra back in the day. He’s by far the most interesting character in the film, though at times he does get a bit weird and do this:

SHIT! Right, that's probably a wee bit creepier than the last one
SHIT! Right, that’s probably a wee bit creepier than the last one

As Anna and Blackburn investigate further they find tapes of the government experiments, showing the effects of the chemical on members of the public.

It’s a clever way of shoehorning more ‘found-footage’ style into the film, and it’s a good thing too because it does it relatively well. The scares are less predictable than in most other attempts at the genre, and do a spot-on job of keeping the viewer unsettled.

Eventually they find out what the chemical really does, and it has to be said the explanation, though an interesting twist, is pretty bloody hokey. Without wishing to spoil too much, it makes the brain more receptive to certain government transmissions.

But that doesn’t explain why it makes people look like this:

JESUS! Right, that's definitely the creepiest of the bunch. Wonder if they can get even dodiger
JESUS! Right, that’s definitely the creepiest of the bunch. Bet it can’t get even dodgier

It’s an odd one, because the film’s first few minutes feature genuine footage from news reports in the 1970s, suggesting that there’s going to at least be an element of truth to what’s about to happen.

Then it all just goes mental with bleeding eyes, people vomiting blood and loads of boo scares. Which, don’t get me wrong, is perfectly effective. It’s just not very believable.

Depending on your sensibilities, it may also leave a slightly bitter taste in your mouth to have a horror film based on real-life atrocities in which a government betrayed its country.

Still, have a look at this guy:

FUCKSAKES! Right, that's enough of that
FUCKSAKES! Right, that’s enough of that

As long as you don’t get fooled by that opening footage and don’t mind a film that piggybacks off a real-life scandal for the sake of making a scary film, Banshee Chapter is worth a watch.

It’s got scares in all the right places, it’s got decent performances and it’s got a brilliant soundtrack. Nicely done.


Banshee Chapter was recently released on DVD in the UK, you can buy it here. In the US, it’s out on DVD on 4 February, and you can get that here. Don’t buy it if you’re expecting copious extra features – the three ‘documentaries’ included run to a total of about eight minutes, and still somehow manage to repeat some footage and soundbites.


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