An especially sordid piece of secret American history, involving horrendous government experiments, deepens the chills in the concise, atmospheric horror outing "Banshee Chapter." Though that's not enough to make it much more than a well-told genre exercise, writer-director Blair Erickson's feature is nonetheless a promising debut and an inventive addition to the "Blair Witch Project" school of found-footage storytelling.
Inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft story "From Beyond," Erickson weds conspiracy theory to the supernatural. An investigative journalist (Katia Winter) is searching for a friend (Michael McMillian) who disappeared after ingesting a psychedelic drug. That potion was a key component of Project MKUltra, the CIA operation that messed majorly with unwitting citizens over a 20-year period ending in 1973, subjecting "patients" to a broad range of abusive tests in behavioral engineering.
Winter's journo enlists the reluctant help of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque novelist, played with just the right low-key hamminess by Ted Levine. As a connoisseur of mind-altering substances and a devoted anti-authoritarian, the character is the perfect link between the screenplay's notions of mind expansion and mind control. The link ends there, though, barely developed, as Erickson focuses on the fright factor.
That he does well. Not above cheap shocks, the movie uses a potent sound design and dark, claustrophobic visual scheme to generate dread. The central drama never fully engages, but the jolts that "Banshee" delivers are check-the-locks scary. Almost as disquieting as the remote desert setting, eerie shortwave transmissions and "archival" tapes of laboratory experiments are well-chosen clips from actual news footage on the project.
MPAA rating: R for some violence/disturbing images, drug use, language and brief nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: At Arena Cinema, Hollywood. Also on VOD.