I don’t scare easily.
After the first thousand or so horror movies, you build up a tolerance. But I do have my thumbscrews like everybody else, and H.P. Lovecraft, numbers stations and MKUltra, all three prominent elements in Banshee Chapter, is a pretty goddamn potent combination. Not only scares me….it scares me every single time I’ve watched it. The roundabout Lovecraftian elements are definitely creepy, those numbers station transmission very fucking creepy…but MKUltra is terrifying. And it should be, because it happened…and if we don’t stay scared, it could happen again, for reasons almost as terrifying as the ficitional MKUltra fallout in Banshee Chapter.
The only problem is that if you don’t have a decent working knowledge of MKUltra, it might be difficult to follow…and the makers of Banshee Chapter assume you know. Unfortunately, if you aren’t familiar with MKUltra and try to google the info, you will wind up in a deep, dark rabbit hole of madness and dumbassery; dive into the deranged depths of YouTube and you will come out white-haired and giggling.
For the record, MKUltra is not ongoing, not part of the Illumi-nutty, has nothing to do with the completely disproven “satanic ritual abuse”, New World Order, the Jonestown Massacre (what), half of Hollywood, lizard people or even Lyme disease (Manchurian deer ticks?). The problem is that Project MKUltra itself was so diabolical that it sounds like conspiracy horseshit…which makes it easier for dimwits and paranoid malcontents to believe the conspiracy horseshit sequels that some creative sociopath out there keeps inventing. Eventually, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the actual events and these franchised campfire tales for paranoiacs. Project Midnight Climax, for example, an offshoot of MKUltra, involved bribing/blackmailing prostitutes into dosing their johns then deliberately fucking with their heads and…stuff…while CIA horndogs watched through a 2-way mirror. That isn’t a conspiracy theory. It was a real thing with official CIA receipts to prove it. Bigfoot looks goddamn reasonable by comparison.
After a cursory search, I have found only three sources which I feel are legit enough to recommend: an especially well-researched, just-the facts Wiki, a brief but accurate History Channel piece, and a very dense, detailed, thoroughly researched book, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, which you can read gratis via the link, courtesy of the CIA. You can also borrow it from Open Library if for some reason you don’t want the CIA spying on you through your phone. LOL just kidding. Pretty sure they already do.
In an obscenely simplified nutshell, MKUltra was a decades-long CIA project, basically torturing human subjects in order to develop techniques for mind control, often on unsuspecting volunteers. The horrific nature of this operation cannot be overstated. It was an outrageously illegal, depraved and ultimately failed attempt to find the perfect interrogation tool for breaking captive enemies (this was in the thick of the Cold War) and/or to create the perfect super-spy: a living, breathing automaton, so brainwashed that no amount of torture could force them into confession–in other words, they wanted a prototypical Manchurian Candidate. And in order to achieve this goal, they tried a wide variety of creative torture–repeated daily electroshock therapy, deliberately set to brain-fry-high voltage; massive doses of zombie-inducing tranquilizers–thorazine, seconal, nembutal and other rarely prescribed sedatives because of their very high Marilyn-Monroe accidental kill rates (allegedly, some subjects went the way of Monroe) to induce coma-like sleep–in at least one case, for three full months–while a recorder played subliminal messages 24/7; radiation, weeks-long isolation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation; vicious, incessant, round the clock belittling and degradation (Note: Ted Kazcynski claims that he was an unwitting MKUltra student volunteer and was subjected to this treatment), physical and even sexual abuse.
But the CIA took a special interest in testing the effects of huge doses of lab-grade, Heisenberg-pure hallucinogens, often on unsuspecting subjects, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time without break…to test its effectiveness as a truth serum, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrific. Yeah. Go try interrogating some poor bastard tripping balls and maybe he’ll confess that your eyes smell like God or he hears the bananas singing hosannas. They wouldn’t even be able to state their name, rank and serial number. Not without a feather.
And yet, this continued for years because, in their own documented words, the goal was to find the perfect hallucinogenic cocktail to achieve any or all of the following results:
- Substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public.
- Substances which increase the efficiency of mentation and perception.
- Materials which will prevent or counteract the intoxicating effect of alcohol.
- Materials which will promote the intoxicating effect of alcohol.
- Materials which will produce the signs and symptoms of recognized diseases in a reversible way so that they may be used for malingering, etc.
- Materials which will render the induction of hypnosis easier or otherwise enhance its usefulness.
- Substances which will enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion during interrogation and so-called “brain-washing”.
- Materials and physical methods which will produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use.
- Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use.
- Substances which produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc.
- Substances which will produce “pure” euphoria with no subsequent let-down.
- Substances which alter personality structure in such a way that the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced.
- A material which will cause mental confusion of such a type that the individual under its influence will find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning.
- Substances which will lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in undetectable amounts.
- Substances which promote weakness or distortion of the eyesight or hearing faculties, preferably without permanent effects.
- A knockout pill which can surreptitiously be administered in drinks, food, cigarettes, as an aerosol, etc., which will be safe to use, provide a maximum of amnesia, and be suitable for use by agent types on an ad hoc basis.
- A material which can be surreptitiously administered by the above routes and which in very small amounts will make it impossible for a man to perform any physical activity whatsoever.
Which brings us, at last, to Banshee Chapter, because it has everything to do with MKUltra experimentation using the drug dimethyltryptamine aka DMT aka a short-acting hallucinogen…plus a mystery “primary source”. Banshee Chapter opens with then-president Bill Clinton issuing a formal apology on behalf of the U.S. government to MKUltra survivors–years after the discovery of 20,000 misfiled documents–followed by actual footage of the weasel CIA director and an interview with one of the MKUltra scientists (whose chilling response reflects the general psychopathy of every sick motherfucker attached to this horrorshow).
We are then introduced to an absolute fool named James, who, for reasons, is going to take a mystery hallucinogen used in MK fucking Ultra, of which he knows precisely fuckall as to its effects, while his friend Renny captures his stupidity on video. How he obtained this dimethltryptamine (plus “primary source”) is a secret, the most secret-iest secret in all secretdom; even to his buddy Renny, he refers to his source only as “friends from Colorado”.
After a few moments of the traditional pre-trip “I don’t feel a thing” disappointment, James begins to hear faint calliope-type music along with the creepiest fucking kid hopefully not really alive reading off a list of numbers. Crippling paranoia sets in, then pure panic. Without elaboration, he tells Rennie “they” are coming. There is a crash at the door, video footage goes wonky and then James scares the shit out of me because this is just so…fucked up.
(Fun fact: just as I rushed, eyes averted, to reduce the size of this…face–which never fails to genuinely freak me out, no matter how many times I’ve watched the movie–the photo editor froze, so I was obliged to stare at Jacked-Face James, three times larger, as he thoroughly examined my soul.).
James disappears–which, let’s face it, is probably for the best–as does hapless Rennie a couple of days later. All very suspicious to Anne (Katia Winter), James’ ambivalent quasi-girlfriend? Friend with bennies? Amorous acquaintance? Enthusiastic wing-man? She seems pretty confused by their alleged relationship; I suspect the girl has major commitment issues. Still, since she is conveniently a plucky reporter, Anne decides she at least likes James enough to investigate his disappearance.
As I’m fighting every instinct not to analyze the shit out of this, I still think it is important to explain the second thing that freaks me out, almost as much as James’ face: numbers stations. Numbers stations are shortwave radio stations which broadcast formatted numbers in the unnecessarily creepy as fuck voice of a murderous black-eyed child, punctuated by intervals of psycho clown calliope music. Ostensibly, these transmissions are messages to intelligence officers in other countries, though maybe it’s a diabolical plan to drive foreign intelligence slowly, painfully INSANE. But the transmissions in Banshee Chapter are for an entirely different purpose altogether…suffice to say, its creepiness is completely appropriate.
Anne continues her investigation in Hell No, Deserted Place, musing whether she was in love with James or just really in like, until she sees a…something…and stops giving a shit entirely. Kudos to writer/director Blair Erickson for presenting the Big Bad only in glimpses and shadows. While I’m sure the movie’s micro-budget was a big factor in this decision, it’s almost always more effective not to present any scary being in detail, because they never look real, usually look stupid and it can actually ruin a movie (see: Z, Outcast and the angry were-chihuahuas in Late Phases/Night of the Wolf). It’s trite but true: your imagination is far more terrifying than any CGI monster. I scare the shit out of myself on a good day.
Following up on a lead, Anne seeks out Thomas Blackburn, an anvil-in-the-face, GET IT? GET IT? obvious Hunter S. Thompson character brilliantly channeled via the criminally underrated Ted Levine. Even while burdened with the cliché reporter-abusing, dope-pranking, chain-smoking, reckless, degenerate, drug-hound persona, Levine is able to convey the wasted tragedy of Thompson’s later years, after he became deeply cynical, creatively snuffed and cursed with the ruthless insight that most of his so-called fans cared far more about his man-precious hijinks than they did his work. Some of us admired Thompson as a writer before he began casting himself as the anti-hero protagonist in every goddamn story he covered; maybe that is why Blackburn’s resigned self-deprecation feels very genuine. Levine portrays him as painfully self-aware, disheartened and weary of the game, yet still capable of enjoying the attentions of pretty Anne…even when he knows she’s full of shit.
At any rate, he invites her to spend a chemically enhanced weekend with both him and a brilliant chemist babe, who has concocted the exact formula for…dimethltryptamine. As somebody whose functioning depends on taking a lot of different drugs–each with their own laundry list of possible side effects–I have to say that the most unrealistic element of this otherwise great hidden gem is how moronically eager these characters are to swallow this shit, when all they know about dimethltryptamine is that it was a top secret mystery hallucinogen used in genuinely fucked up CIA human experimentation, without any surviving records documenting its effects. Blackburn, maybe, but you’d think that at least a goddamn chemist might take five minutes to consider whether or not if it’s a good idea to consume an untested formula. Fucking Timothy Leary was more conscientious. Personally, I won’t take a chewable vitamin until I’m damn sure of exactly what it contains and how it will affect me, yet these fools hear the word “dimethltryptamine” and instinctively unhinge their jaws like baby birds with a death wish.
Which doesn’t go as well as they had hoped, because after they throw back their chemical shooters, events happen which cannot be explained away as mere hallucinations, but are distinctive enough to remind Blackburn of H.P. Lovecraft’s”From Beyond” (the story, not the piece of shit film). Don’t worry if you’ve already read the story (and kudos if you have), the climax and pay off of Banshee Chapter is original, terrifying and impossible to predict. And just so the viewer never forgets the origins of dimethltryptamine (and “primary source”), interspersed throughout the film are black and white clips of spooked, shackled MKUltra subjects and their horrifying reactions to the same drug…and eventually, a gruesome discovery of the “primary source” ie the catalyst which transform a garden variety, short-acting hallucinogen into…well, I won’t tell and you probably won’t be able to guess.
Fair warning–while I wouldn’t say this is a deep, metaphor-laden, multi-layered cerebral horror, eg the late Marcin Wrona’s Demon or Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, it’s not a movie you watch while fucking around on Facebook–a lot happens and not a frame is wasted. But if you watched Banshee Chapter before and weren’t impressed, give it another try; hopefully, the above MKUltra primer will clear things up. And now is the perfect time: as of this writing, it’s streaming on Tubi for free!