Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (UK Frightfest)
Genre: Horror; Mystery
Starring: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle
Elliot Goldner brings a heap of diligence to his directorial debut. The Borderlands is the Brit’s first venture behind the camera, the outing a horror flick that opts for patience over pillaging. Goldner manages the atmosphere well and his film builds to a genuinely creepy crescendo as a result. But the ingredients aren’t all that original, nor are they universally receptive. It is tough to root for obnoxious characters and tougher still to engage in such a familiar situation; we slot into the misty West Country, our time split between a haunted church and flaming sheep. Persevere, though, and be rewarded.
Having been summoned by the local priest, Vatican paranormal investigators Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and Mark (Aidan McArdle) find themselves trying to disprove a plethora of mysterious happenings. They are joined by Gray (Robin Hill) who, despite being non-religious, sees more weight in the ghostly declarations than his colleagues. That is until what is perceived to be coincidental gradually grows stranger.
The first thing to note is The Borderlands’ lack of originality. This is no spectacular deviation from the horror norm, certainly not in terms of character or overarching story. Candles moving without provocation, noises emanating from walls, a rural location. The characters too, divided by scepticism and belief, are more or less conventional. Deacon, portrayed fairly well by Gordon Kennedy, is the moody Scot bearing a mysterious secret that is no doubt disquietingly aligned to the current job. He won’t share it though, and instead we must succumb to generic small talk that does nothing for the characters. Discussions enveloped in weird histories sort of add to the film’s simmering tension but retread old ground in content.
A beginning that is at best innocuous trundles over into annoying territory the longer our resident tech guy Gray is on screen. You’ll recognise him as the tech guy because the tech guy is always the offbeat one, harmlessly immature and progressively frustrating. Gray laughs at place names and rustles crisp packets in church. “Food, cleanliness and a little bit of naughty,” is one of his more egregious lines. And just on the off chance you missed all of that, we also see him also partaking in a lot of webcam installation. Robin Hill plays Gray without any real panache but the performance serves its purpose. They all do — Luke Neal is perhaps the most efficient as Father Crellick. The problem is that these people are not the most likeable bunch. Mark arrives later on and completes the undesirable investigative trio, he a bit of a bumbler who objects to almost anything. By the time the scary stuff arises, we don’t really care too much for anyone’s safety. (Though, admittedly, the film overcomes this issue in the end.)
After a fairly average, and arguably quite boring, opening half hour — one that occasionally plays out like a peculiarly mundane episode of Big Brother — Goldner amps up the menace. Shouting matches emerge sparingly but time is most often filled by a growing sense of risk. Patience is the film’s most effective employee; the director never panics despite a narrative that is somewhat uneventful, at least in horror terms. The creaky characters become less creaky because the film no longer wholesomely relies on their interactive antics. Dialogue that may have manifested as outlandish beforehand gains a degree of importance, particularly as the end nears. (“That’s nature for you Deacon, big stuff eating little stuff”). By the time the final sequence plays out we are just about glued to the screen in an ocular concoction of fear and intrigue. It is an ambiguous conclusion, but not an alienating one.
The Borderlands’ technical aspects deserve credit too. In between scenes, the camera likes to pull back and take in the spooky country surroundings, every so often reminding us of the characters’ vulnerability due to their presence in a relatively secluded area. A mountain looms in the background with grey, murky clouds swirling overhead relaying somewhat of a foreboding nod. The gloomy cinematography ushers forth a landscape that frequently becomes a character in and of itself. Goldner, who also wrote the piece, is savvy when it comes to his use of the found footage element. Cameras are mounted on walls and characters wear Google Glass-esque lens recorders, covering all bases. Subsequently, what we’re presented with is a hybrid of found footage and classic direction that works well.
Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, The Borderlands is a fairly short film. It squeezes as much horror juice and brooding anticipation out of its runtime as possible and does so without ever revealing too much. Held down by shaky characters and a largely unoriginal story, the outing — though admirable in its atmospheric quality — hinges on a strong conclusion. It delivers.
Images copyright (©): Metrodome Distribution