Review: The Borderlands / Cert: TBC / Director: Elliott Goldner / Screenplay: Elliott Goldner / Starring: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle / Release Date: April 7th
There’s no phrase likely to drive terror into the hearts of the discerning film viewer more than “found footage”. OK, maybe “directed by Uwe Boll” or “starring Adam Sandler”, but it’s up there. For those utterly disenchanted with the genre, The Borderlands isn’t going to change their minds. Haunted churches, debut director, unknown cast – on paper it sounds like any number of risible horror movies we’ve seen over the last 15 years. With one big difference. It’s really good.
The concept sounds fairly unappealing. A team of Vatican investigators, consisting of two priests and a technical expert, are sent to an anonymous English West Country village to investigate an alleged miracle at the local church. It’s hardly going to win any awards for originality, but it’s not trying to. This is a film that wears its inspirations on its sleeve. Touches of The Blair Witch Project, The Wicker Man, The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity are all evident. But it isn’t trying to be hugely original or innovative. The Borderlands wants to deliver an entertaining, witty film that alternatively makes you laugh and scares the shit out of you. And on both accounts it succeeds admirably.
What sets the film apart from many of its ilk are a series of brilliantly executed scares and a clever, cliché-defying script by first time writer/director Elliot Goldner which expertly turns the audience’s preconceptions on their head.
The film works hard to achieve a credibility missing from many of its counterparts. With, for once, a plausible explanation for the use of found footage, plus well-rounded, likeable characters, for the most part it succeeds. It’s aided tremendously by a pair of terrific central performances from Gordon Kennedy and Ben Wheatley regular Robin Hill. The pair have a fun chemistry, and the semi-improvised dialogue from Hill (who co-wrote Down Terrace) in particular provides much of the film’s humour.
Deftly defying expectations, the script doesn’t fall into the easy trap of allowing its characters to become stereotypes. Rather than the priests (Kennedy and Aidan McArdle) being cassock wearing, by the book Christians, they’re both cynics, determined to debunk what they believe to be a false miracle. We expect the team’s technical expert (Hill) to be the cynical geek. He’s not, he’s more open to believe than his companions and the sort of fast talking, witty character you alternately want to hang out with or punch in the face. It lends them a more realistic, rounded feel than the one dimensional characters we’ve come to expect in films of this nature.
The naturalistic approach extends to the found footage. Often gimmicky, here it works in the film’s favour. As part of the investigation, the Vatican requires the team to document their every move, meaning the entire film is from headcams worn by the team, or cameras installed in the film’s two key locations. The technique lends the potentially hokey premise a feeling of realism that it could otherwise struggle to achieve. Which makes it all the more disturbing when bad things inevitably start to happen.
It’s no spoiler to say the supernatural goings on in the church are genuine, and director Goldner makes the most of his minuscule budget to provide some effective scares. This is a film which understands how powerful a door suddenly closing or a well-timed sound effect can be (we’d recommend watching it with the sound turned up as high as possible), and he delivers more creepy moments than films with a hundred times his budget.
Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges. A couple of secondary characters never quite come to life, a revelation about one of the major characters seems a little unnecessary, and the climax veers towards Blair Witch territory, but for the most part The Borderlands succeeds admirably. Deftly balancing humour and shocks, it’s one of the best uses of found footage we’ve seen in a long time and one of the strongest British horrors of recent years. You may never go in a church again.