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By Brock Wilbur · January 12, 2014
Blair Erickson's debut film is a seamless blend of found footage horror, documentary, acid freak-out, and paranoid delusion. What it loses in off-brand X-Files mystery, it makes up for in style, scares, and an unexpected dose of character.
Using real footage and interviews about the CIA's mysterious MK-ULTRA program, which tested experimental drugs on unsuspecting Americans, Erickson dives into the story of a missing journalist whose attempts to re-create one of the tests results in his own disappearance. His college crush (Katia Winter, Dexter) begins a journey to find him that requires building connections between short wave radio number stations, secret government agencies, a Hunter S. Thompson-esque gonzo writer (Ted Levine), H.P. Lovecraft, and inter-dimensional travel.
For a faux-documentary that has a hard time playing by its own rules, the tension is borderline cruel. The claustrophobia keeps each segment drenched in an overwhelming dread leading to some scares that never quite live up to their promise, but keep you guessing all the same. One extended sequences results in a hand grabbing from the darkness, and while it gets the jump on you, there's nothing flashy about these scares.
Levine's bourbon-soaked drug relic makes for an excellent pairing with Winter's straight woman, although the real star of the film may be production design. Whereas other found footage would feel comfortable in a single location, Banshee Chapter spreads out across a number of fully realized environments, each with their own terrifying architecture and memorable details.
It's nice to see that the Paranormal Activity style of film can still be fresh and effective, even when that series is running itself into the ground. The Banshee Chapter succeeds in crafting a film smarter than its genre, while proudly wearing its influences and proving itself vastly superior to its recent brethren.