The Borderlands: Film Review

Colin J. Smith
(c) Metrodome Distribution
Paranormal activity in picture-postcard England. 

This low-budget found-footage horror debut from British director Elliot Goldner has plenty of chilling atmosphere but lacks bite.

LONDON - An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a haunted church: in a typical British pub conversation, that would be the opening line to an old-fashioned bar-room joke. In writer-director Elliot Goldner’s debut feature, it is the set-up for an equally old-fashioned horror yarn about turbulent priests, demonic possession and ritual exorcism by a team of Vatican-sponsored ghostbusters. Who you gonna call? The Pope, apparently.

Mostly shot in a small village in the rural southwest of England, The Borderlands takes some extremely well-worn horror tropes and gives them a lightly post-modern remix, but without adding much original spin or sparkle. Goldner, whose slender track record lies mainly in commercials and music videos, applies the “found footage” format to this familiar tale of paranormal activity, but he is clearly low in both budget and inspiration. Opening in selected U.K. theaters later this week, with DVD release to follow next month, this underpowered genre exercise will have limited appeal outside traditionalist horror circles. Grindstone has already secured U.S. distribution.

Gordon Kennedy, a seasoned comic actor on British television, leads a mostly unknown cast as Deacon, a hard-drinking Scot with a history of debunking bogus ghosts and staged miracles. Together with boisterous English techno geek Gray (Robin Hill) and slick Irish Vatican emissary Amidon (Mister Selfridge regular Aidan McArdle), Deacon is on a mission to a remote church in the English countryside that has recently been shaken by spooky poltergeist disturbances. The trio suspect local priest Father Crellick (Luke Neal) of fakery, but their instruments appear to confirm supernatural forces moving around the building, blowing lights and interfering with video footage.

Further investigation reveals the church has a long history of paranormal activity, and sits atop a network of tunnels built by Pagan worshippers in pre-Christian times. After a series of shocks, macabre warning signs and unexplained deaths, the team eventually drop their wall of cynicism and call in Vatican exorcism expert Father Calvino (Patrick Godfrey) to perform a “banishment ceremony”. And then, quite literally, all Hell breaks loose.

As with all found-footage thrillers, the script twists itself into illogical knots providing a clunky rationale for why the protagonists must wear headcams at all times, in order for viewers to witness every scene. In addition, the dialogue is peppered with literal-minded plot exposition, from one-sided phone calls to characters who conveniently talk to themselves during solo escapades. Much of this feels too on the nose, piling prosaic certainty on top of spooky suggestion. Possible spoiler alert: this movie was originally called The Devil Lies Beneath.

Goldner is plainly working in the shadow of Ben Wheatley, the young director who has revitalized the British horror scene in recent years, mixing nightmarish shocks with visceral violence and savage humor in films such as Kill List and Sightseers. He even borrows Wheatley’s regular editor and occasional actor, Robin Hill, to play a leading role here. But The Borderlands is a much more conventional film than any of Wheatley’s work to date, lacking their stylistic brio, visual sorcery and creeping menace.

In fairness, Goldner does deliver a few striking visuals, notably some ravishing wide shots of mist-covered English landscape. His script is also commendably ambitious in places, as characters debate the faultlines between religious faith, healthy skepticism and scientific enquiry. There is a light but welcome sprinkling of comedy too, with jokes about previous big-screen thrillers including The Wicker Man and The Da Vinci Code.

It is also tempting to read the claustrophobic final chase sequence as a sly homage to The Blair Witch Project, but that may be crediting the film-makers with too much knowing subtext. After all, what kind of idiot ventures into demonically possessed tunnels in the dead of night? Are they insane? Haven’t they seen any horror movies? Damningly, even this chilling climax misses the target, never delivering the nerve-shredding adrenaline rush required by genre rules. Neither as scary, as original or as funny as it needs to be, The Borderlands is a cultish curiosity for indulgent hardcore fans only.

Production companies: Metrodome

Producer: Jen Handorf

Starring: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle, Luke Neal

Director: Elliot Goldner

Writer: Elliot Goldner

Cinematographer: Eben Bolter

Editors: Mark Towns, Will Gilbey, Jacob Proctor

Visual effects: Colin J. Smith

Sales company: Salt

Rating 15 (UK), 89 minutes