“THE BORDERLANDS” (FrightFest Movie Review)
Somewhere in the southwest of England there are reports of supernatural phenomena at a rural church. Father Crellick (Luke Neal), concerned for his sparse parishioners, has video evidence of objects moving independently on his altar during a christening; moved by a presence that seems to corrupt the very recording. A team is sent in.
THE BORDERLANDS is a found-footage affair, but the rules are cleverly established early on to avoid the format’s perennial problem of explaining why people are continuing to film. Wall-mounted surveillance cameras are supplemented with a head-cam for each character that must be worn at all times (outside the bathroom). It’s explicitly laid out that blanket coverage is imperative, to avoid the gaps in a darkly alluded-to previous case.
The reveal of information is carefully controlled. We’re first introduced to Gray (Robin Hill), an irreverent techie setting up the electronic equipment for the investigation. He’s soon joined by the sometimes grumpy but generally easygoing Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and we learn that we’re in the company of paranormal detectives from an unspecified “Congregation.” It’s only with the arrival of the stern “Relator General” Father Mark Amidon (Aidan McArdle) that we learn that this case is Vatican-sanctioned. Throughout the film, in line with millennial religious horrors like STIGMATA and END OF DAYS, the Catholic Church is viewed as a sinister and obstructive entity akin to The Company in the ALIEN saga. Gray, at one point, laments “Dan Brown was right!”
Interestingly, it’s the agnostic Gray (not religious, but not an atheist either: he believes in “stuff”) who’s most credulous and ready to believe that Crellick’s events are actually taking place. The Catholics, with a history of exposing hoaxes, are actually more cynical and slower on the uptake, convinced of trickery designed to bolster the church attendance of Crellick’s flock.
It’s a tense and compelling film, if not an especially frightening one, until a horrifyingly claustrophobic climax. It doesn’t quite achieve the dread-in-silence of, for example, the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films, but it doesn’t resort to that series’ cheap jump tactics either, only once manufacturing a hokey “Boo!” moment with Gray jumping out of a box. The overall atmosphere is one of eerie mystery, but there’s a lot of comedy too.
There’s much of THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN and THE WICKER MAN in the film’s set-up and vibe—Gray tells an amusingly taciturn local to “have fun with Edward Woodward”—but a lot of its effectively off-kilter tone comes from the career baggage of its cast. In recent years Gordon Kennedy has been a stoic Little John on the BBC’s ROBIN HOOD, but for slightly older audiences he’s perhaps best known as a comic actor from 90s British comedy shows like ABSOLUTELY and RED DWARF. Robin Hill meanwhile has previously juggled horror and humor with Ben Wheatley, co-writing and starring in DOWN TERRACE, and making an appearance in KILL LIST. The hilariously named Father Umberto Calvino (Patrick Godfrey), who shows up late on to herald the endgame, is presumably a magic-realist semiotician. It’s possible that “Crellick” sounds deliberately like (Father Ted) “Crilly”, although there’s nothing so whimsically sit-com in his fate.
The end credits suggest the film once went by the blunt title “The Devil Lies Beneath,” which isn’t quite what’s going on here. Its final moniker is ambiguous, but echoes William Hope Hodgson’s THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND, with which it shares a plot device of an uncovered journal written by an incumbent of the site many years past. There’s no physical geographical border in the film’s location, but Hodgson’s double meaning, in which the land is also a portal to another cosmic plain, has a vague corollary in the film’s final stretch. Whether THE BORDERLANDS’ conclusion is a devastating punch line or a frustrating non-ending is down to personal interpretation (it’s kind of both), but it possibly leaves a gateway open for future study. THE BORDERLANDS is a likeable and successful standalone, but further investigations wouldn’t necessarily be unwelcome.