D: Elliot Goldner / 89m
Cast: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle, Luke Neal, Patrick Godfrey
Following reports of paranormal activity at a church in Devon, a small team of investigators is sent by the Vatican to look into the matter. The team consists of Deacon (Kennedy), an investigator with many years’ experience; Gray (Hill) an IT specialist who has been drafted in to set up and monitor various cameras and recording devices; and Mark (McArdle), a priest who is in charge. Deacon and Gray meet with the church’s incumbent, Father Crellick (Neal) who shows them video footage from a christening where items on the altar are seen to move (apparently) by themselves. Deacon is unconvinced there is any paranormal involvement, while Father Crellick believes his church may be the site of a miracle. Gray is also sceptical but he and Deacon go ahead with the installation of several cameras within the church.
Strange phenomena continues to be seen and heard in and around the church, and Father Crellick begins to behave oddly. As the possibility of a hoax being played out becomes increasingly unlikely, Deacon looks further into the church’s history, discovering a diary written by a priest in the 1880’s. In it there are disturbing references to a nearby orphanage that was open at the time, and hints that the children were abused, all of which is somehow linked to the church. Exploring the church itself more thoroughly, Deacon discovers a concealed doorway and steps that lead down under the building. He also hears sounds and then a voice that references one of Deacon’s previous investigations. Fearing they may be dealing with something far more serious than they’d originally imagined, Deacon calls on the services of Father Calvino (Godfrey), an expert on matters relating to pagan deities. The four men make their way to the church to perform a cleansing ritual, but things don’t go as they planned…
The Borderlands – as you may have guessed – is a found footage horror movie, and while that particular sub-genre has been filmed to death over the last seven to eight years, there are several things that make this movie stand out from the crowd, and help make it a more rewarding experience than say, Grave Encounters (2011) or Devil’s Due (2014). First and foremost are the characters, which are drawn quite broadly but with enough detail to make them credible as individuals, and their motivations and approach to events at the church remain consistent throughout. Deacon is the world-weary pragmatist faced with something he can’t explain, while Gray has an initial happy-go-lucky approach that you know won’t last. Mark is the uptight cleric whose faith only extends to the teachings of Jesus, and Father Crellick is the young priest who may or may not be looking for some publicity to bolster the attendance at his services. There’s a good feel to their interaction with each other, and the dynamic of the team is quickly and easily established.
The Borderlands also boasts a very creepy vibe from the outset, and while there are the standard camera shots where nothing happens, the movie’s use of head cams makes for a steadier and surprisingly unsettling perspective than the standard shaky cam, and allows for each character’s reactions to events to be seen there and then. The church – unused in real life for worship since 1981 – has an unsettling feel to it, and the scenes inside it, for the most part, achieve an unnerving quality that is quite unexpected. Also, the pagan backdrop is used sparingly but to good effect, and the inclusion of allegations of historical child abuse has a resonance (thanks to the inclusion of a character called Mandeville – British viewers may pick up on this) that is given a distinctly uncomfortable payoff.
The denouement has Lovecraftian overtones, and there are some neat touches for those eagle-eyed viewers watching the background and not the foreground – look out for the headstone Gray stands near to at one point. Goldner, directing from his own script, assembles the various elements to very good effect, and creates a palpable, nightmarish atmosphere. There are a few narrative stumbles – an episode involving a sheep doesn’t lead anywhere, Crellick’s behaviour is odd from the word go, and Father Calvino arrives (at short notice) with information about the church that hints of the Vatican’s prior awareness of the site – but on the whole the movie successfully rises above the slough of other found footage movies and does so by virtue of working hard on the characters. Kennedy gives an unusually layered performance, while Hill adds depth to a character who seems to be there just for comic relief but who actually serves as the viewer’s way in to the movie. In support, McArdle and Neal have less to do but acquit themselves well playing secondary characters, and Godfrey arrives too late to make much of an impact but handles his exposition-heavy dialogue with aplomb.
Rating: 7/10 – With some comic moments early on that stem from the characters and their situation, and don’t feel shoehorned in to provide relief from the growing unease the movie is creating, The Borderlands is an effective little chiller; with good location work and a screenplay that subverts audience expectations, this is one found footage movie that can easily be viewed more than once.