Fifteen years ago I went to a matinee showing of a horror film in Bournemouth’s biggest cinema screen with a friend on a weekday lunchtime to see a film that was getting huge attention on the recently invented ‘World Wide Web’. We were pretty much the only people in the cavernous cinema and the experience was completely chilling. To this day I have never been so scared in a cinema as I was when I saw The Blair Witch Project (I was 14).
At the time, TBWP seemed to be just the jolt that the horror genre needed to spark some life back into it. Yet since that seminal film, the ‘found footage’ horror subgenre has become something of a cliché with familiar visual tropes and narratives. Some have been more successful than others, like [rec] and Paranormal Activity, but mainly audiences are becoming tired of them. Myself included.
This cynicism tainted my initial feelings towards seeing The Borderlands, the debut feature from writer/director Elliot Goldner, but it completely restored my faith in the genre and showed what can be done on a micro-budget with a solid script. Throughout the film I kept thinking what my 14-year-old self would be thinking if I had seen it then…
The story is centered around a small church in the British West Country where a reticent priest Father Crellick (Luke Neal) has reported spooky metaphysical activity. This leads to the hardened and skeptical Vatican investigator Deacon (Gordon Kennedy), the spritely and agnostic techie Gray (Robin Hill) and the bureaucratic and cynical Father Mark (Aidan McArdle) to investigate.
The justification for using the found footage conventions are announced immediately by Gray who explains that it is protocol to record all aspects of such an investigation. This removes the obvious audience question of ‘why are they recording this’ that usually occurs within this genre. This means that you accept the use of camera headsets and Big Brother style CCTV cameras that he sets up within the church and the house that the two are staying in.
The action then cuts between the house where they are staying, the church that they are investigating and the local village that is growing increasingly hostile toward their presence. This is exacerbated greatly when the investigators turn on Father Crellick and accuse him of foul play…
The editing of the footage is skillfully executed and paced, with the story that develops between Deacon and Grey as exciting as the growing story about the paranormal. Grey represents a modern agnosticism, that wants to believe in something but doesn’t want to commit to the details, whereby Deacon represents an old-school Catholicism that manifests itself in all-consuming guilt and an over-reliance on red wine. Their growing relationship is tightly scripted and modestly acted, with some of the most compelling moments in the film being their drunken exchanges about metaphysics, paganism and British religious history.
There has always been a reliance on comedy to break the tension in Horror films, even if achieved unintentionally during rubbish B-movies. But The Borderlands has a very funny, British sense of humour and gives the characters a sympathetic humanity that attaches you to them all the more during the impending dread of the final act. Grey in particular is incredibly funny as the metropolitan digital slacker forced to work with a medieval absence of WiFi/GPS.
The film is fundamentally about superstition and faith, as the locals in the village have a profound distrust of the outsiders bringing back luck upon their village. The local hoodies loitering around bus stops listening to grime music on their iPhones, along with the bruisers sat in the pub drinking watered-down Stella (presumably) become an even bigger threat to the characters as the possibility of demonic apparitions – which ultimately becomes a metaphor itself about the relationship between villages and visitors.
It would be unfair on the film to mention anything about the claustrophobic ending, but needless to say my 14-year-old self would have been utterly terrified – even in a cavernous cinema.