Technically speaking, Banshee Chapter is yet another in the ever-gluttonous found-footage horror subgenre, though the central gimmick is only sporadically incorporated throughout, and to often thrilling effect. The secret government project known as MKUltra—established in 1963, but not publicly acknowledged until the Clinton administration—subjected human test subjects to numerous drugs and experiments in order to manipulate brain functions in a program that was vast in scope. The unethical practices provide the springboard for journalist Anne Roland (Katia Winter), who searches for her friend, James (Michael McMillian), after he acquires and consumes a mysterious MKUltra drug and goes missing. Anne eventually meets Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), a strung-out countercultural writer and conspiracy theorist. Levine’s presence, coupled with the detective story set against the unfortunate legacy of America’s insecurities, recalls The Silence of the Lambs, though the association is only skin-deep: Blackburn’s house is similarly crammed with iconography, like the workshop of Levine’s Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s film, but director Blair Erickson never articulates any moral or psychological complexities, and the characters are thus merely broad archetypes moving around impeccably dressed sets.
Erickson shows a knack for staging rigorously controlled scenes that display an odd theatricality, adding to the film’s sense of unease. He allows dramatic sequences to unfold in long intricate takes, underlining his characters’ lack of spatial activity within untidy and overbearing interiors (the camera, spookily, seems to move more freely than the characters do). “Archival” footage of MKUltra experiments periodically interrupt the action and play out in a similarly deliberate style. But Erickson never appears overly confident in structuring these sequences, as there’s always a last-minute attempt at a classic “shock,” which itself is too dependent on the liberal use of decibel-piercing sound effects. Before the moments come, the horror had been implemented through a shrewd and subversive use of the found-footage aesthetic; Erickson seems unsure of how to follow through, and pushes the fail-safe button too freely, punching out on scenes culminating in a cheap fright that quickly become redundant.
By the third act, Erickson’s meticulous artistry appears to be both a blessing and a curse, as the theatrical style sucks any sense of spontaneity or playfulness from the climax. When the film begins to show its From Beyond influence, Erickson means to capture the outright absurdity of both the 1986 film and the Lovecraft story on which it’s based and use the premise for political satire, but the conclusion becomes burdened by the rigidity of Erickson’s tone and restrains itself from the bizarre heights material such as this allows. It’s an odd undertaking to contextualize Lovecraft into covert American history, and Erickson admirably tries to grapple with his material in this sense. The director surely has style to burn, even if he oftentimes betrays his atmospheric shorthand and gets cold feet at the most inopportune moments.