Friday, October 17, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #17: BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013)

The Story: A female journalist investigates the mysterious disappearance of a friend who was last seen experimenting with a goverment-engineered drug called DMT-19.  During her investigation, she crosses paths with... Hunter Thompson?!  Why not.

Expectations: My wife actually picked this one, because she said it sounded like more of a "thriller" than a horror movie.  The Netflix synopsis claims that it is "based on a true story."  Gee, where have I heard that before? 

Reaction: I was really intrigued by the "true story" elements of this movie.  First of all, it is rooted in documented CIA experiments in mind control in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- a subject that would make for an interesting documentary film, and a natural jumping-off point for an X-FILES style horror film.  Second, one of the main protagonists is a thinly disguised version of the late gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, a leading authority on America's drug culture (and a defiant anti-authoritian on everything else). Third, the film introduced me to the strange phenomenon of shortwave radio "number stations," which I assume must factor heavily into a lot of UFO / alien abduction theories.  (Writer/director Blair Erickson, however, leans more on H.P. Lovecraft's "From Beyond" than on the usual stories about little green or grey men.)   In short, BANSHEE CHAPTER has more than enough material to appeal to anyone even mildly fascinated with America's ex-hippie "lunatic fringe"... and I am more than a bit fascinated by with such modern-day mysteries.  

That said, not everything about this film worked for me.  Early on, it succeeds in creating a compelling aura about the unknown--but increasingly it relies on cheap shocks (DMT-19 essentially turns people into J-Horror kids) and found footage interludes that disrupt the flow of the narrative.  And despite the use of Lovecraft's brilliant concept of otherworldly monsters, the mystery never goes much deeper than a casual X-FILES fan would expect it to.  Maybe it's the case that stories about vast government conspiracies and alternate dimensions will always deliver less than they promise... The speculations always seem to be greater than the reality.  (This, admittedly, coming from someone who has never tried LSD.)  Like Mulder, I wanted to believe in the world this film presents, but I was underwhelmed by the hodgepodging of familiar elements, and by Katia Winter's lead performance.  I will admit that Ted Levine's take on Citizen Gonzo kind of grew on me... although that character's final scene seemed to be in poor taste. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: In a film like this, the type of scenes that work best for me are the ones that make the most of audience anticipation.  For example: In the beginning, one character takes DMT-19 and waits nervously to see what will happen... Later, his journalist friend drives out into the desert at 4am and waits nervously for a predicted message from an unknown source... Finally, toward the end of the film, the same journalist visits a secret room in abandoned house, and watches a recent video recording showing her that she's not alone in there... In each instance we know something is going to happen, but we don't know exactly what or when.  For my money, this type of suspense is the key to a good horror movie.

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