J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Banshee Chapter: Lovecraftian Fear and Loathing

This film probably could not have been made while Hunter S. Thompson was alive. As a gun nut with a taste for experimental drugs and paranoid politics, anti-hero Thomas Blackburn is conspicuously modeled on the gonzo journalist.  Thompson might have issued a shotgun rebuttal or he might have been amused by it all.  In fact, Blackburn is by far the best thing going for Blair Erickson’s murky conspiracy horror movie, Banshee Chapter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

For the sake of his gonzo-ish book, James Hirsch plans to sample an industrial form of MDMA used in the CIA’s ill-conceived MK-ULTRA mind control experiments.  It is all for the sake of journalism, mind you.  Long story short: bad trip.  After Hirsch mysteriously disappears, leaving behind only some expository video tapes, his former ambiguous college friend Anne Roland sets out to track him down.

The synthesized drug was supplied to Hirsch by “Friends in Colorado,” which is a transparent alias for Blackburn.  When Roland tracks down the anti-social novelist, he tricks her into partaking some of his associate’s freshest batch.  That also leads to a bad trip—of supernatural dimensions.  In fact, Banshee is actually based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond,” which we can glean because Blackburn helpfully takes time out to tell the tale to Roland.

Veteran character actor Ted Levine (recognizable from Silence of the Lambs and about a jillion others films and shows) is frankly kind of awesome as Blackburn.  Listening to him snarl and snark is a blast.  As an added bonus, Katia Winter’s Roland is a reasonably intelligent and forceful genre protagonist. Unfortunately, it takes forever to get the two together. 

Overly determined to establish Banshee’s inspired-by-real-events bonafides, Erickson shows us clip after clip of archival press conferences and congressional hearings, as well as his found footage dramatizations of MK-ULTRA experiments gone wrong.  As a result, the first third of the film has the feel of a cheesy old Syfy Channel special.

Of course, once the narrative finally starts it makes no sense whatsoever.  Somehow the CIA “Numbers Stations” are bafflingly involved in the cosmic skullduggery, but the logic is sketchy.  About all that’s missing are Area 51 and the Grassy Knoll. Clearly, Erickson has more talent for dialogue than plot development.  Levine chews on some great lines, but when Banshee ends, viewers will be wondering what that was all about. Genre fans will probably get a kick out of Blackburn on Netflix, but there’s not enough there there to justify theatrical ticket prices.  For diehard Lovecraftian conspiracy junkies, it opens tomorrow (1/10) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema (and has already released on VOD).

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