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Case Number 26940

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Banshee Chapter

XLrator Media // 2013 // 87 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jason Panella // February 5th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Jason Panella is already planning on filming the sequel, Siouxsie and the Banshees Chapter.

The Charge

The U.S. government's ultimate EXPERIMENT IN TERROR!

Opening Statement

For over 20 years, the C.I.A. performed a number of experiments that plumbed the depths of human behavioral engineering. MKUltra, as the project was known, caused outrage when its existence became public knowledge in the 1970s. For good reason, too—subjects were often unwitting and were subjected to a variety of questionable and unethical procedures.

It's a weird and unsettling bit of American lore that seems to have been abandoned entirely to the likes of history buffs and conspiracy theorists. Micro-budget horror film Banshee Chapter is one of the few films out there inspired by the MKUltra tests—does the movie use the tests to get some inspired scares? Or is it just some more of the same—old found-footage nonsense? The answer to both, surprisingly, is "yes."

Facts of the Case

After the disappearance of her close friend James (Michael McMillian, True Blood), journalist Anne (Katia Winter, Dexter) uncovers a line of evidence that leads back to the C.I.A.'s MKUltra experiments. The key seems to be an altered form of dimethyltryptamine that connects users with something beyond the realm of time and space. With the help of gonzo countercultural icon Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine, Monk), Anne plans to get to the bottom of the government conspiracy and—hopefully—find James.

The Evidence

In the wake of recent onslaught of found-footage horror movies, Banshee Chapter stands out as one of the few worth salvaging. It's an occasionally creepy movie capably made on a tiny budget. It's also a total mess in spots, with some of the most frustrating aspects hard to shake even in light of all of the good things.

Loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft's excellent short story "From Beyond," Banshee Chapter works best when its tension is stretched to the breaking point. First-time writer/director Blair Erickson wrings an impressive amount of unease out of the initial half of the movie. The characters quickly establish that the DMT used in the MKUltra trials changed the subjects profoundly, and with this knowledge Erickson lets menace lurk just offscreen. This feeling that something isn't right—paired with a handful of extremely effective jump scares—works so well that the most mundane tasks are charged with potential scares. Sadly, Banshee Chapter gradually begins to rely on those "boo!" moments, which is made worse by the fact that some of these jump scares are telegraphed way in advance. The movie pulls a few good tricks, but when it starts to recycle its own gimmicks…well, it loses a lot.

The rest of Banshee Chapter is a mixture of good and bad (thankfully leaning ever-so-slightly toward the former). While the characters lack any real depth, they're at least played believably enough to engender some concern. Levine is particular is great; he's always been one of those character actors who seems to inhabit his roles, and he's no different here. Levine goes all in with Blackburn, who is some sort of amped-up amalgamation of Ken Kesey (who participated in the real MKUltra experiments) and Hunter S. Thompson. Banshee Chapter gives Blackburn's desert home and its surroundings a wonderfully claustrophobic feel, despite the openness, and one of the best segments in the film juxtaposes Blackburn's space-case personality with the creepiness of the desert at night.

Despite this good stuff, the movie really suffers structurally. The movie uses the found-footage aspects only when it's convenient—we see a lot of faux-archival test footage spliced in and many scenes shot from a camera's point of view (terrible shaking and almost-dead battery symbol included), but then the movie switches back to a traditional narrative approach. Yet…it's never totally clear if these traditional portions are supposed to mimic a documentary or not, either; there's a "you are there" quality to what's on the screen without ever indicating that someone is following the characters with a camera. So why bounce back and forth between found-footage scenes and normally filmed scenes that ape documentary footage without trying to be fake documentary footage? I wish I knew. It really does drag the movie down; had Erickson stuck with one approach, it would've made a huge difference.

Xlrator's release of Banshee Chapter has a mostly average standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that only shows off with a few gorgeous shots of the American southwest. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is also fair, handling the multiple channels without too much fuss when things get creepy. Besides the trailer, there are four meager featurettes: "What is the Banshee Chapter?" (3:15); "Directing the Banshee Chapter?" (3:00); "The History Behind Banshee Chapter" (2:16); and "Banshee Chapter Shooting in 3D" (2:44).

Closing Statement

It has a lot of problems, but I kind of liked Banshee Chapter. At the very least, it's worth applauding the film as a found-footage (or sort of found-footage) horror film that's quite unlike any of its contemporaries.

The Verdict

The jury has inexplicably vanished. Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 84
Extras: 60
Acting: 84
Story: 79
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile

Studio: XLrator Media
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• None
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Horror
• Science Fiction
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes


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