2018 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 3: Banshee Chapter (1983)

I knew that day three’s challenge was going to be rough.

MATHS AND NUMEROLOGY: The plot must revolve around numbers in some way. Count on this theme to be a tough one.

It seemed like so many people would choose Pi or The Number 23, so I wanted to avoid those ones. And I’d already reviewed Suicide Cult, a blast of strangeness that combines astrology and biorhythms to determine the new Christ and Satan for the next century sometime in the 1970’s. That’s when I discovered 2013’s Banshee Chapter.

How does this fit the ask? Well, a big part of the movie, which touches on a number of conspiracy theories, deals with numbers stations. These shortwave radio stations broadcast formatted numbers, which some believe are coded messages to intelligence officers operating in foreign countries. The majority of these stations use speech synthesis to vocalize numbers, although audio tricks like phase-shift keying and frequency-shift keying, as well as Morse code transmissions, are not uncommon. These stations may or may not have set schedules and channels — there are a lot of variables.

I first learned about numbers stations thanks to the incredibly influential book Big Secrets by William Poundstone. From the initiation rituals of lodges and secret clubs to backmasking, subliminal messages, fast food recipes and, yes, numbers stations, this book took me from an inquisitive 15-year-old to an absolute maniac desperately searching for hidden knowledge — kind of like the characters in this film.

Another place that people first discovered numbers stations was on Wilco’s album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which uses samples of various stations.

Banshee Chapter is the directorial and writing debut of Blair Erickson, who based this movie off the H. P. Lovecraft short story From Beyond, which in turn inspired 1986’s From Beyond.  In addition to numbers stations, it also has threads taken from MK Ultra, a series of hallucinogenic drug experiments performed by the United States Government, and the gonzo adventures of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Starting with stock footage of President Clinton and others talking about MK Ultra, we meet James Hirsch, a young man whose research has led to him taking the drug used in the experiments, dimethyltryptamine-19 (DMT-19). Soon, he becomes able to hear strange music, voices and numbers from a nearby radio before he anxiously says that something is coming to wear him as a large shadowy figure causes the footage to stop.

That’s when we meet the real protagonist — Anne (Katia Winter, Dexter) — a friend of James who wants to discover where he has disappeared to. She soon learns that the broadcast that James heard is a phantom numbers station that can only be heard in the desert at a very specific time of night. She tries to find it, only to see a monstrous form that she runs from.

A reference in James’ notes to “Friends in Colorado” is all about Thomas Blackburn (character actor extraordinaire Ted Levine), a Hunter S. Thompson analog. He tricks her into taking DMT-19 and begins to bring her along on his adventures. One of James’ friends, Callie, is part of his orbit and she slowly becomes controlled by the shadow creature. They soon learn that DMT-19 allows otherworldly creatures to broadcast signals directly into human bodies and take them over after a certain amount of time. Even worse, MK Ultra was actually created by these entities, aided and abetted by pineal tissue from a reanimated dead woman.

Being so close to the number channel generator — the dead woman who is the primary source — makes James vomit blood, as he’d been an MK Ultra test subject in college. He shoots himself rather than allow the entities to take him over. Anne finds James’ clothing, suggesting that something was wearing his skin, before setting the test facility on fire.

Taken into police custody, Anne relates the movie’s events to a friend. Although she learned that Thomas never gave her the drug, it turns out that the ability to hear the numbers station comes through human touch. Anne passes this along to a co-worker who comes to visit as she begins to hear the station again.

Banshee Chapter was a surprising find and a great watch. That’s been my goal with the Scarecrow Video Psychotronic Challenge, to discover some new films that I would otherwise never watch and share them with you!

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