Q&A: Director Blair Erickson on Government Experiment-inspired, “BANSHEE CHAPTER”
After the nearly decade reign of the “torture porn” era, with yearly SAW entries and the deserved reign of the New French Extremity movement, there’s no surprise in the horror community welcoming suspense-driven genre films with open arms. While high tension, low-gore films like THE PURGE, THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 bringing in the highest profits the genre has seen in years, the atmospheric output of filmmakers such as Jim Mickle, Ti West and Ben Wheatley have brought independent horror to an almost classical style of slow burn storytelling. And yet, somewhere in the middle lies BANSHEE CHAPTER, an intense and psychological horror tale that’s spawned from history itself, citing the MK-Ultra experiments of the 50s and 60s as its source of inspiration.
Even more impressively, BANSHEE CHAPTER manages to be not only genuinely creepy but also conventionally scary, a quality that many independent and artful horror entries can’t attest to. Director Blair Erickson is wisely restrained with his camera, allowing tension to build but offering a satisfying payoff for each unsettling set-up, and uses a strong, minimal cast—anchored by Katia Winter and Ted Levine—to ground the film in reality, even when the supernatural elements begin to show their ghastly faces. In light of the film playing at the New York City Horror Film Festival, Erickson spoke to FANGORIA about his disturbing debut…
FANGORIA: You obviously did a lot of research into the MK-Ultra experiments in preparation for BANSHEE CHAPTER. Was it that research that inspired you to do this film or did you do the bulk of the research after conceiving the initial story?
BLAIR ERICKSON: I think it was the research that inspired it, and it wasn’t just reading about the MK-Ultra experiment. It was also reading into other government experiments they had done with Trimethyltryptamine and stuff like that, and how the patients had seen all these strange entities they all called “banshees”. I loved that idea, and that’s where the title came from. Then [the story] emerged from there, as I was exploring how that might work.
FANGORIA: Was it important for you to have these entities as the main villain of the piece or did you ever toy around more with having a shadowy government agency as the antagonist, which is hinted at points?
ERICKSON: I think, ultimately, the villain was always going to be something strange or supernatural, though it would work metaphorically to represent this bad presence that we had created. That’s how I look at things. I say, “You know, if we really trace back what we see now happening with the NSA has its root going all the way back 40, 50 years ago during the Cold War, when they did this stuff and no one was held accountable. Because of that, we have this thing that lurks in our country that never goes away and we’ve never really dealt with it. We try to think that it’s just not going to be there, but it’s even worse than you thought, and I loved the idea of using that as this metaphorical thing. I also played with the idea of having this H.P. Lovecraft-style thing, where it’s something like “the horrible Others.”
FANGORIA: The look of the creatures is reminiscent of the mythological banshee, to an extent, but was there any other inspiration for their specific look, aside from that of a “faceless creature”?
ERICKSON: Well, in the way the fingers works, there’s a little bit of a tentacle element, which I love because it harkens back to the Lovecraft thing, and there’s a little bit of a spider feel to it, but ultimately, I always had this image of it in my head. If you think about the things that had scared you in the past, and to me it was, “Well, we’ve always had those nights in the past where you’re in college and partying with people, and suddenly you’re like, ‘wait a minute..’ and you get creeped out.” That’s the kind of thing you’d see in your head, or at least for me it was, if that makes any sense. So I tried to get that across with the look of the entities in the story.
FANGORIA: Well, when approaching a story that has a politically charged backstory to it, did you find it necessary to ground the film in horror and not make it too preachy or campy?
ERICKSON: Absolutely, I would say that there were other drafts that were much more political and much clearer about the political metaphors of the piece, but they were raining on the rest of the story. I withdrew them but left just enough in there so that people can still feel it. There’s no need to hit them over the head with it.
I think that horror was the perfect medium to do this with because horror is such a wonderfully subversive genre. You can get away with so much more in horror films because horror fans are more open minded and they’re willing to take chances with riskier material. I don’t think you could have done BANSHEE CHAPTER as a drama, at least successfully. I know there have been dramas that have tackled it, but when I think about films that have mined this subject, the best one is still JACOB’S LADDER.
In general, horror is such a transgressive medium. When you think back to the first major film that had a black lead that was ostensibly about civil rights was NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. If you look back at those ‘80s slasher films, what were they saying about the death of idealism and the rise of ‘80s morality? Why did torture porn become popular right as the U.S. started torturing people and we were publicly finding out about it? I think horror films make statements that other genres that are more mainstream are afraid to make.
ERICKSON: I think I picked journalists because- and it was important that she was British, in a weird way, because she’s not American and Americans look at these things a different way because we’re involved in them. Americans are like, “Yeah, that happened,” and to an outsider, they’d say, “That’s strange. Why would you accept that?” It was important that she had an element of being an outsider.
But the journalist thing was something where it’s a job that’s not really being done well right now except with a handful of cases. It felt like, “Hey, remember when we had investigative journalists in this country?” I thought, “What if we still had that and they worked for a Huffington Post kind of thing?” I had to imagine it as I was writing, because we didn’t really have that kind of thing and the Huffington Post was just starting up. The Glenn Greenwald thing hadn’t happened yet, but it seemed like the right material and it seemed like a good fit. I feel like the only other job Anna could have had would have been a writer. That’s the only other way it would work, but I thought journalist fit better.
FANGORIA: As a filmmaker and storyteller, was it important for you to have a female lead at the center of this project?
ERICKSON: Yeah, I think so, because I like the dynamic of her trying to find someone she had a relationship with that was sort of unfinished. I had to set that up as the precedent and then go out to establish an interesting dynamic between her and the Blackburn character. It’s not a romantic dynamic, but at the same time, you realize he’s this scary, older male figure and she’s this younger woman. They’ve got this strange dynamic but it makes for a great through-line for the story.
FANGORIA: From his look and cadence, Blackburn seems to be inspired quite a bit by Hunter S. Thompson. Did that interpretation of the character come from yourself or Ted Levine?
ERICKSON: It was in the script, and it’s always tricky to answer this question as it could spoil the end of the movie, but it wasn’t just Hunter S. Thompson. [Blackburn] was three figures: Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson. The character talked about and had some life events that are similar to all of them, and his overall life story is very, very, very close to Ken Kesey, but of course, you have to watch the entire film to learn the information that comes out.
In terms of the stuff he would do that is like what Hunter S. Thompson would do or say, people know Hunter S. Thompson the most and that’s who they identify the character with, and that’s fine. Ultimately, if they take it as nothing else, then wouldn’t it be fun to put a Hunter S. Thompson-esque character in a horror story? If that’s all they get from him, that’s fine and that’s great. That’s more than enough.
FANGORIA: BANSHEE CHAPTER shares a lot of similarities to two major subgenres of horror, which includes the paranoia-driven horror of the ‘70s and J-horror. Did you have any other specific influences on the film?
ERICKSON: It’s really tough to say because when you’re a huge horror fan, you go, “Gosh, how many of these movies influenced me?” There’s so many; J-horror, absolutely. Some of the ways that J-horror explores themes are absolutely done in this film, especially things about our creepy past coming back to haunt us and things like that. In BANSHEE CHAPTER, it’s not a regular haunting; it’s like we are haunted by our own national decision. I think that’s a part of it. JACOB’S LADDER is obviously a big influence, as I remember growing up and watching that like, “What the hell is going on?” but at the same time, it’s creepy. Even stuff like POLTERGEIST, where you think the idea is that the ghosts are coming through the television, but really it’s about a house that’s built on a graveyard, so all of those ideas come into play.
I think we were influenced by even stranger stuff by some of the way we built some of the horror here. I think there’s an element of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, but Lynch more so in the sense that he sets up these really creepy scenes that are very strange and they’re so outrageous, yet the actors are so serious in them. So you buy into that weirdness and strangeness, and that was a lot like this. We were exploring the idea of these things that on paper seem completely outrageous, but the actors are so committed to it that the scenes would seem dreadfully disturbing. Even if the audience didn’t understand what was happening, they knew it was disturbing and scary. I think that’s a part of how we did it.
Even David Lynch movies that weren’t horror were influences. You could say LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE wouldn’t be classified as horror, but they do have some genuinely creepy moments.
FANGORIA: To fit in with the theme of the sins of the past haunting the future generations, was it important to make sure the cast that’s specifically victimized was mostly young?
ERICKSON: Yeah, absolutely. In the real experiments, most of the subjects were younger, and one of the subjects of the original MK-Ultra experiments was Ken Kesey. He was a grad student at the time, so because of the young people they experimented on, that’s what unleashed LSD on the American population in the 60s. The CIA was bringing that drug in and testing it on people, and then the subjects of the experiments later leaked the chemical into the population. So it just made sense to [focus on young people], and then we have a character that’s older and from that counter culture era. Those two made a nice match, to have young people and then to have people from a generation of young people for whom things went terribly awry.
FANGORIA: It must be a blessing for an independent filmmaker to have a talented character actor such as Ted Levine on this project, especially in that scene-stealing role. How was it like working with Levine, especially considering the caliber of his past genre projects?
ERICKSON: He was amazing. The amount of energy he brought to the character was absolutely phenomenal, because when you have a character like that on paper, you’re not sure if it’s going to work because he’s so outlandish. It really takes an actor of that caliber who can deliver and really commit to the insanity of the character. Ted can really play anyone. He’s played cops and police lieutenants, but he’s also played Buffalo Bill in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, so you know he has this huge range and he really brought it to this character in a big way.
When you put that list together of actors who could be playing that role, he was the absolute first choice. We were thrilled when we heard that he just read the script and was like, “Yes!” I don’t think there are a lot of actors who could have done [what he did] and looking at that list, it’s not a long list.
FANGORIA: One very curious credit to the film is that you have Zachary Quinto on board of the project as a producer. How did his participation come about?
ERICKSON: We actually went to college together, and I think he was coming off HEROES and doing STAR TREK, and he had also started a production company which had just done a film called MARGIN CALL, which I really loved. We were coming to the end of development of BANSHEE CHAPTER, almost going into production, and they read the script and were really into it. It was a no-brainer, like, “Do you guys want to be on board with this?” MARGIN CALL had such a very small budget and these guys had a track record for making things work with small budgets, and making them look and feel like they’re bigger films. They brought a hell of a lot to the table. They still do! Even at this stage, we’re getting a lot from that partnership. It was absolutely great to get their involvement in the project.
FANGORIA: Do you have anything currently in development or that you’re working on at the moment?
ERICKSON: There is another film in development that I’m working on and I don’t think I can actually talk about it yet. It’s a different storyline, and not at all the same type of film, but there are definitely horror elements in it, so I’m excited to get to work on that one.
BANSHEE CHAPTER will be available on VOD from XLrator Media on December 12th, with a limited theatrical rollout on January 10th.