Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
Given that the last FrightFest title to feature banshees was 2010’s dull Raimi ripoff Damned By Dawn, the title alone of The Banshee Chapter might be enough to put some viewers off director/co-writer Blair Erickson‘s debut – but that would be a pity, as this turns out to be not only one of the weekend’s most straightforwardly frightening offerings, but also one of the most amiably batshit.
The film’s title is in fact borrowed from the name of a chapter on which writer James Hirsch (Michael McMillian) is working when, under the supervision of his friend Renny (Alex Gianopoulos), he ingests 150mg of “supposedly impossible to find” DMT-19 (an ‘enhanced’ variant of the psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine), and then vanishes, along with Renny, under highly mysterious circumstances. Armed only with Renny’s video recording of James’ last known moments, Anne Rowland (Katia Winter) is now determined to get to the bottom of what happened to her old friend. Following a trail of phantom radio signals, long-abandoned secret government programmes and radically experimental hallucinogens derived “from the primary source”, Anne is led to reclusive novelist and countercultural psychonaut Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), even as it becomes clear that whatever they are pursuing out there in the Black Rock Desert is already coming to get them.
After their university years together, Anne found her calling in journalism while James had drifted into novel writing (later Anne herself will pretend to Thomas that she too is an aspiring novelist) – and yet in a film that deftly weaves together historical data about Project MKUltra, numbers stations and ‘depatterning‘ with all manner of paranoid Lovecraftian fantasy, the distinction between a journalist’s facts and a novelist’s fictions becomes very blurry indeed. For here genuine archival images and interviews are interwoven with faux found footage, while the invented Thomas Blackburn is modelled closely on the real (if much mythologised) Hunter S. Thompson. Upon discovering that an old fallout shelter in the Nevada desert is being reused for shadowy ends, Thomas will declare, “Gotta give those old government boys credit for efficiently repurposing.” This latter phrase also perfectly describes the way in which the filmmakers reappropriate, magpie-like, the detritus of hidden postwar history to new genre purposes.
The Banshee Chapter is realistic enough to show its two main characters interrupting their cross-country flight for a toilet break, while also grade-a insane enough to include pineal gland-based pharmacology, bodily possession and even Area 51-style aliens in its conspiratorial plotting. It certainly works as a gonzo exposé of some of the twentieth century’s madder moments – but perhaps more importantly, this psychotropic remapping of history never forgets to be proper jump-out-of-your-seat scary. Think of it as Fear and Loathing in Chamber 5 – where even if there are no actual banshees, the characters are still very much damned by dawn.