Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. I found the new conspiracy theory/horror film called BANSHEE CHAPTER to be a refreshingly chilling film and one more people should check out. The film opens in limited release this Friday and is available on digital download and Video On Demand now. I had a chance to catch up with the director Blair Erickson about the film, working with Ted Levine, and his thoughts on this terrifying real life horror.
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): Congratulations on a really compelling film. I have to admit I jumped quite a few times while watching it. Can you explain to the readers exactly what BANSHEE CHAPTER is all about?
BLAIR ERICKSON (BE): BANSHEE CHAPTER is a surreal Lovecraftian horror story about an online news journalist named Anne Roland trying to uncover the terrible truth about a CIA government research gone horribly awry. It explores frightening concepts around the real-life MK-ULTRA program that our intelligence agencies and the Chemical Corp of Army Engineers engaged in in the late 20th century. It's a metaphorical haunted house of America's own horrific crimes coming back to haunt us.
BUG: This story is rooted in fact. How much of it is true and how much were you able to take liberties with?
BR: Though the story does not proclaim to be "based on a true story" like a lot of horror films, much of the material in the film is based on and inspired by real events and real research. There really was (and some say still is) a program in which the U.S. government worked to develop powerful chemical agents and tested them on unsuspecting American citizens. Much of that research was focused on finding a way to create "puppet people" or basically kill the conscious life inside the human and create a kind of hollow man who would do the bidding of the controller. We mixed that in with some fascinating government research that's been done with dimethyltryptamine seeming to contact alternate dimensions and creating strange pathways through time and space.
To sum it up, there really was an MKULTRA program, they really did test strange and mysterious chemicals on unsuspecting victims, people did really die, investigations happened, records were destroyed, nobody was ever charged with any crime, and some of the chemicals tested in the program did escape containment in the hands of volunteers like Ken Kesey and end up unleashed on the American public. That's one of the main reasons we have drugs like say LSD today.
BUG: Who did you go to in order to talk about this phenomenon in terms of research?
BR: For most of this I talked to a lot of experts in CIA history as well as people who had done their own experimentation with chemicals like DMT and such. But for the most part I didn't want to engage too much with the real life people involved with MKULTRA as the story is fiction and I didn't want victims (or perpetrators) thinking that something in the film was directly based on them.
BUG: The film has a very found footagey feel to it, but it isn't really aside from a few clips from past events and the few moments from the beginning. But still, there's a hand held camera sort of feel to the film. What made you decide to film it in this way?
BR: I wanted that kind of "cinema verite" feel to the story because I felt that would help make this kind of disturbing matieral feel more immediate and direct. You want the visceral impact of found footage but without the narrative restrictions. If the shots had been perfectly staged and artfully lit, the story would lose a lot of the creepy immersive punch of feeling like you're trapped in the experiment with the main characters. The style also helped us blend in real archival footage and mix recreations of real events in.
BUG: Ted Levine plays somewhat of a madman in this film. How did he come on board and what was he like on the set?
BR: Ted is amazing and brings a hell of an energy to the Thomas Blackburn character. I think he's the kind of actor who understands that a role like this requires a fine line of humor and madness. When we went looking for the perfect Blackburn, Ted Levine was the very first name on the list. We were lucky that he read the script and immediately got what the character was and how he could bring him to life. I think his performance is what drives a lot of the manic craziness of the film. One critic dubbed him "our chemically infused conductor on this trippy train ride" and I think that perfectly encapsulated what he does to the story.
BUG: TRUE BLOOD's Mike McMillian's character is sort of the focal point in this film. He's a part of Before the Door Pictures and has a fantastically scary scene at the beginning of the film where he takes a dose of this experimental drug. What's Michael like to work with and what input did McMillian and Zachary Quinto offer to the film?
BR: Michael McMillian is first an awesome actor and secondly an incredibly well-versed writer. We used to make student films together back at Carnegie Mellon University when we were young.
Casting him as James was actually an easy decision because he actually knows a helluva lot about MKULTRA and DMT research from his work writing the comic "Lucid." So when we shot those scenes where he's giving an interview about how and what the chemical does, he was actually speaking quite off the cuff from his own big brain. I also think there's something just incredibly engaging about him whenever he's onscreen. And that works well when you want the audience to pay close attention to the subtle moments in a character.
Zach Quinto and the rest of the team at Before the Door really have perfected the art of creating an elevated cinematic experience for the indie world. They know the genre world well and I think love being able to bring something weird and new to the conversation. I think because we all went to college together so we have a kind of working geek language that you don't get from most of the Hollywood world. And Corey Moosa, our brilliant producer from Before the Door basically has the largest working memory of horror movies and books I've ever seen so he was the perfect person to guide this production.
BUG: Was that a tiny cameo by Zachary Quinto as one of the guys in the masks in the flashback?
BR: The film is actually full of strange and weird secrets to catch and if I started giving them away it might set a terrible precedent...
BUG: If you had a chance to take the blue drug and experience what the characters in BANSHEE CHAPTER experience, would you?
BR: Not a chance. Since I first started researching the story and poking around the world of chemical research and alchemists I've been offered a whole bunch of mysterious compounds to ingest. I've avoided them because I think at this point I know a bit too much about what to expect to jump off that metaphysical cliff.
BUG: The unique messages that play along with the ice cream truck sound is really eerie. Were these accurate or did you come up with those noises yourself? Because they they are creeeeeeepy...
BR: Want to know what's really creepy? We didn't create that noise. That's a real recording of a number station.
BUG: Going into the film, were you a believer in the phenomenon that occurs in the story and did those feelings change after making it?
BR: There's a terrific bunch of books and documentaries about chemicals like DMT that seem to connect the human mind to alternate dimensions, both beautiful and terrifying. And the phenomenon of patients experiencing the malevolent entity is well documented. I think the real question is whether the phenomenon is simply a drug hallucination or something more tangible and unexplained. Personally, I can't say I know either way. I'll say that there's almost certainly forces at work in this universe and perhaps other universes than we can ever truly "know" right now with our limited human senses.
BUG: Are you afraid "They" will come after you for trying to uncover these secrets?
BR: I'm more worried nobody is paying attention to these kind of terrible secrets at all! Since making this I've had several interviewers ask whether the MKLUTRA program was real (obviously two seconds on Google can confirm that) and why I didn't just make a documentary. The sad punchline is that there were already documentaries on this topic readily available to view, but nobody cared.
Americans have a terrible habit of letting their own government commit horrific crimes and then dismissing the consequences with the naive hope that this kind of malevolent force in our power structure will just go away. The truth is, it never goes away until you truly confront it. We've yet to reach that stage and we've known about this kind of thing for decades. Nobody has ever gone to jail for MKULTRA, and I'm guessing nobody will ever go to jail for all the activities of the NSA either.
BUG: What other projects do you have coming up and in the works?
BR: There actually is a new film I'm working on. Normally, I pretty much dodge this question but I finished the script with my co-writer Shawn Depasquale and development has begun moving forward, here's the premise:
IN MEMORY is the story of Jessica King, a brilliant young creative student and the complicated relationship she has with her introspective lifelong friend, Daniel at the end of the summer of '96. Just as their close bond begins blossoming into something more, Jess is brutally murdered and Daniel's life is shattered. Decades later, one snowbound winter night, when he's in his late thirties... Jess shows up at his house, looking exactly the same as she did the night she died. Together they're forced to confront the truth about her death and whether their journey together ends as a love story or a tragic horror story.
So that's how the story begins. It's a kind of haunting fairy tale about death. And since it begins in the summer of '96, the music, the style, and even the story itself is a very personal and nostalgic throwback piece done in a style reminiscent of those classic 90's cinematic tragic ghost stories like SIXTH SENSE, CANDYMAN, GHOST and STIR OF ECHOES. I think people will be very surprised by this one. The story is very close to my heart and I'm glad to get a chance to tell it.
BUG: Last chance, why should the readers of AICN HORROR check out THE BANSHEE CHAPTER and where can they find it?
BR: Ambush Bug at AICN said the film is "utterly terrifying" and nobody should disagree with something on AICN! Also, we have won several "scariest film" awards at horror film fests and hardened film critics have said the movie will either give you a heart attack or make you shit your pants. If you've seen a lot of horror films and want to try something crazy, frightening, and unique I think this film delivers on all three.
Right now, iTunes, Amazon, OnDemand, pretty much anywhere digital films are rented. There's also a theatrical run coming to select cities on Jan. 10th so if you want to see this gonzo horror tale, it's pretty easy to find.
BUG: Thanks so much for answering these questions.
BR: Anytime, I love you guys! AICN has been my go to movie geek site since I was a teenager.
BUG: BANSHEE CHAPTER is available on digital download and in select theaters January 10, 2014. Below is my review of the film!
BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013)Directed by Blair Erickson
Written by Blair Erickson, Daniel J. Healy (story)
Starring Ted Levine, Katia Winter, Michael McMillian, Monique Candelaria
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
Supposedly based on real government tests that occurred in the late sixties involving mind altering drugs that were meant to be developed into all kinds of psychic weaponry, BANSHEE CHAPTER starts with what looks like authentic footage of scientist types being interviewed about the secret programs. While I’m not sure of the validity of all of the claims this film seems to be based upon, it does make for a compelling backdrop to cast a horror film.
And BANSHEE CHAPTER is an effective horror film. It takes an intriguing premise (secret government mind-control drugs), fills it with likable cast members (fresh faced Katia Winter and the always fun Ted Levine, as well as TRUE BLOOD’s Michael McMillian), and loads it up with scenes that ooze scary. The story hinges on Winter’s character Anna who is in search for her missing friend James (McMillian) who video taped himself ingesting an experimental drug and then…something weird happens. Enlisting the aid of a Hunter S. Thompson-type names Blackburn (Ted Levine), Anna finds herself uncovering a conspiracy involving mind altering drugs, strange short wave radio broadcasts, and melty creatures in the shadows. Though the terror is never really identified and is more of a concept than an actual monster, I found many moments utterly terrifying.
The thing is, the way BANSHEE CHAPTER was made is as curious as its premise. Just as the opening stock footage moments feel real, there’s an odd found footage aspect with the way this film is made. Occasionally, we get the point of view from a camera (as with the footage from the opening moments when McMillian ingests a mind altering drug called MK-Ultra), but later, things are taken in a more traditionally cinematic manner, but the film is still shot in the cinema verite/hand held style one might find in a found footager, though there’s never a camera man identified. Because of this, the tone of the film is quite odd, in terms of the way it was shot. This oddness of camera style only adds to the slightly off feel you get about this film from the get go. From minute one, there is an other-dimensional, trippy quality that I can’t deny.
BANSHEE CHAPTER often cheats with the scares as a blast of music is accompanied by a shocking image. These scenes got me every time as director Blair Erickson builds to each of them in a manner that tackles the element of suspense well. Still, I can see some might grow tired of the keyboard slam scare that most of this film relies on. And it’s too bad because a lot of the imagery of the warped creatures reaching out of the darkness and shuffling toward our heroes is really scary. Aside from the audio ballast, the use of sound is definitely creepy as the voices which appear over the short wave radios of a young child or female voice speaking in some kind of odd code paired with the tune of an ice cream truck is a nightmarish juxtaposition. These scenes where the distinctive broadcasts appear from nowhere are effectively haunting.
Though there is an over-reliance on the cumbersome jump scare paired with a music blast in BANSHEE CHAPTER, I have to give the film props for coming up with a truly original premise and following through with an execution that is sure to cause multiple leaps from your seat. I jumped from my own chair numerous times in the film and was overcome by a sense of unease by the use of unnatural sights and sounds Erickson filled this film with. BANSHEE CHAPTER uses tried and true methods to scare, but also comes up with some new ways to terrorize the eyes and ears and take you on trips few films are creative enough to go.
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 4. Mark’s written comics such as THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, DEATHSPORT GAMES, NANNY & HANK (soon to be a feature film from Uptown 6 Films), Zenescope’sGRIMM FAIRY TALES Vol.13 & UNLEASHED: WEREWOLVES – THE HUNGER and a chapter in Black Mask Studios’OCCUPY COMICS. FAMOUS MONSTERS’ LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (co-written with Martin Fisher) will be available soon in trade. Mark also wrote the critically acclaimed GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK and its follow up THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES! Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.
Interested in illustrated films, fringe cinema, and other oddities?
Check out Halo-8 and challenge everything!