“Banshee Chapter” is an effectively creepy horror-mystery whose journalist heroine tries to find out what happened to a friend — one last seen ingesting “an enhanced form of a rare contraband chemical” associated with murky government drug experiments. Loosely inspired by the U.S. government’s actual secret MKUltra program, and by Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond” (both referenced upfront onscreen), writer-director Blair Erickson’s debut feature peppers its atmosphere of dread with decent “gotcha!” scares. It also makes good use of the otherwise overexposed found-footage device, despite some questionable fudging between those passages and what we’re supposedly seeing in real time. A limited theatrical bow Jan. 10 follows last month’s VOD launch, with DVD release set for Feb. 4. Horror fans should make this low-budget indie a modest sleeper success in various formats.
Things start off with a mix of actual archival news footage and fictive interviews suggesting the long-term ill effects from U.S. government experiments with hallucinogens, performed on unknowing subjects. (We see President Clinton apologizing decades later for the CIA-run Project MKUltra, in which drugged citizens were subjected to illegal abuse as exercises in “behavioral engineering.”)
Videotape shows young chemist James (Michael McMlllian) self-administering a dose of DMT-19, a notorious lab-created compound once used in such experiments, which he’s obtained from unidentified friends in Colorado. Prior users are said to have experienced traumatic encounters with mysterious entities, and indeed, once the drug kicks in, James suffers a terrifying certainty that “something is coming.” When “it” arrives, the video abruptly ends. We also see footage of a police interrogating James’ cameraman, Renny (Alex Gianopoulos), after the chemist has gone missing — as does Renny a few hours later.
Nursing a concerned curiosity as well as implied lingering romantic ties, James’ former college pal Anne (Katia Winter) insists on investigating his disappearance herself. She discovers that certain sounds heard on the original video resemble those aired by a mystery radio broadcaster somewhere in the Black Rock Desert. There’s also some connection to the famed, ornery, reclusive writer Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), a Hunter S. Thompson-esque wild man who once wrote a novel called “Friends in Colorado.”
Her inquiries rebuffed via phone and email, Anne drives to Blackburn’s rural home incognito along with his friend Callie (Jenny Gabrielle), another chemist. Substances are ingested, then things rapidly go south, sending Anne and host fleeing into the night. They eventually land at an abandoned military fallout shelter, the site of the sinister human experiments we’ve glimpsed in faux-archival footage throughout. Needless to say, the explanation that emerges re: James’ vanishing is not a pleasant one.
Proving the “Paranormal Activity” formula can still work when used with canny restraint, Erickson achieves good results with long, eerie found-footage takes that end in jolts. There and elsewhere, the monsters are glimpsed just fleetingly enough to deliver a shock. Narrative resolution is usually the point where long-buildup horror-thrillers like this falter, but “Banshee Chapter” satisfyingly solves its puzzle while providing one last note of panic.
Though there are a couple of wobbly supporting turns, Winter and Levine (clearly relishing his over-the-top character) ably carry the day. Packaging is shrewd, with the conceit requiring little in the way of conspicuous production expense beyond the gonzo decor of Blackburn’s hunting-lodge-style manse.