It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
There's a scene in the original "Cat People" (1942) where a woman goes swimming at an indoor pool after hours. The stairwell is lit, and she senses something scary approaching. An ominous growl rips through the silence. She leaps into the pool for escape. Director Jacques Tourneur shows us the wavery reflections on the ceilings, the walls, and then cuts back to the woman in the pool, and it one of the most terrifying sequences in cinema and you don't see anything. First-time writer/director Blair Erickson's "The Banshee Chapter" pulls off a similar trick: the film is filled with inky-black shadows pierced by the dim blue glare of flashlights, and shadowy cavernous spaces overwhelming in their sense of menace, and the fear really lies in what is not seen. Like "Cat People", "The Banshee Chapter" is both elegant and terrifying.
"The Banshee Chapter" starts out documentary-style, with words on the screen informing us of the secret CIA program from the 1950s and 1960s codenamed Project MKUltra, which involved chemists and doctors injecting hallucinogenic drugs into people in order to study the results. MKUltra was officially sanctioned in 1953 and halted twenty years later. Records of this program are hard to come by (in the wake of the Watergate scandal, CIA director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra files destroyed), although there were Senate hearings on the topic in 1977, led by Ted Kennedy. One of the goals listed on a surviving MKUltra document was to give people "substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public" or, even more comforting, "materials which will cause temporary/permanent brain damage and loss of memory." Paranoia was obviously at an all-time cultural high point during the years of MKUltra, and the project is still swathed in secrecy and conspiracy theory. "The Banshee Chapter" shows us some of the Senate hearings, as well as grainy interview footage with one of the doctors who appeared to not have considered the moral implications of what he was doing.
After the compelling and creepy beginning, there is a somewhat awkward segue into the nuts-and-bolts of the story. We meet a budding investigative journalist named Anna (Katia Winter) who wants to find out what happened to her college buddy James (Michael McMillian). James is shown in "found" video footage, about to take a mind-altering drug, the same one used in MKUltra, as research for a chapter in a book he is writing. His friend holds the camera, and we watch James drink down the bright blue liquid and wait to see what will happen. James quickly becomes freaked out, saying that something "is coming", the found footage goes to alarming static, and when the event is over (which we never see in its entirety), James has vanished off the face of the earth. And the friend is now being held for questioning in the police station.
Where did James go? Is he alive? What was he referring to when he said "something was coming"? And what exactly was that blue liquid? Anna's investigation leads her deeper and deeper into the complicated sub-culture of American conspiracy theorists and abandoned desert compounds where the government did bad bad stuff once upon a time, as well as "numbers stations", strange shortwave radio stations that broadcast indecipherable stuff, static and beeps and also, on occasion, a female childlike voice intoning weird chants. And while the word "banshee" is never actually said in the film, that's what seems to be coming out of the numbers stations, the voices of those mythical creatures who wail when someone is about to die.