Saturday, 3 October 2015

October Nightmares #3: The Borderlands (2013)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not particularly a fan of modern horror. I believe the last horror film I went to see in the cinema, was 2013's Evil Dead. Modern horror just doesn't resonate with me: I find it all too visceral and excitable. Made for the type of thrill-seekers who appreciate cheap and easy scares. This may make me a snob, but I just don't enjoy it. I'm sure that the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition probably thought his victims a bit snobbish for not appreciating the subtleties of a night spent on the rack. For me the act of watching a horror film in the cinema can be turned into a horror film itself: ‘Iron Criterion goes into a darkened movie theatre with a hundred other people. But how many will come out alive as he snaps and begins slashing throats?’

As a result, I have mostly been able to avoid the current 'found footage' craze. Found footage movies feature plots told at an eyewitness level in a pseudo-documentary style. And, therefore, are by necessity crammed with increasingly convoluted reasons for the protagonists to refuse to relinquish their cameras like they're Edward frigging DSLR-Hands. Lest we forget this is a genre popularised by 1999's The Blair Witch Project (though certainly evident as early as 1980's Cannibal Holocaust), a film mostly remembered for showcasing the inner-workings of the female nose. If that scene wasn't a plea to put down the camera during an emotional breakdown, then I'm not sure what purpose it served. But I've found that once unburdened by overly expensive cinematography equipment and fanciful techniques, found footage proponents seek to depict a grittier and purer experience. As you may expect this is often the first port of call for indie directors.

Let me be clear, a poorly focused hand-held camera does nothing to enhance plausibility. It just pisses people off. You know why people bought into the myth of Cannibal Holocaust? It was because it courted controversy in real-life by being made by an auteur madman willing to go to extremes to convince the general public what they just watched was real. Even The Blair Witch Project had an incredibly dedicated spin machine going for it. None of it was to do with the amateurish nature of the genre. To aspire for pedestrian realism is to lack ambition, thus reducing costs. I remember seeing Paranormal Activity at the cinema and being utterly bored by the on-screen barrage of creaky doors and loud bangs. “Where’s the horror?” I asked, sat discontented amongst screaming halfwits. “The fact that you paid money for this,” the presumed response of the fox-like PR-man responsible for selling the film.

And then in a fortuitous turn of events The Borderlands came along. The directorial d├ębut of one Elliot Goldner, The Borderlands is a haunting journey into the dark side of religion that manages to effective utilise the found footage format in a way not seen since Paris Hilton discovered infrared cameras. Centring around three paranormal investigators dispatched by the Vatican to debunk a supposed miracle, The Borderlands gladly embraces the opportunities its format provides. Goldner quickly and convincingly establishes the rules for his restrictive narrative - the Vatican demand every aspect of the investigation be punctiliously recorded as proof of authenticity. The characters also utilize different varieties of recording devices (CCTV, Go-Pro style cameras, etc.) avoiding the common sense pitfalls seen in similar movies.

Refreshingly, the use of cameras as a story telling device serves the enhance the horror set pieces. Graphical glitches and the unnatural interference corrupting the recording grant the audience glimpses into the evil influence lurking deep under the surface of the commonplace church. Initially Goldner keeps the truth ambiguous: are these just bizarre glitches, or do they mask something altogether far more insidious? Goldner's inspired approach is made all the more convincing by his attempt to marry the directing style and story together in an organic way. Whereas films such as Paranormal Activity operate on a reactionary plot with the characters continually responding to the worsening situation; The Borderlands initially restricts glimpses of the dark presence solely to the audience. Enabling Goldner to devote his time to establishing the relationships between the three men.

The calm, isolated scenes in the cottage are where The Borderlands shines. Gordon Kennedy and Robin Hill have magnificent on-screen chemistry as turmoil priest Deacon and spiritually confused tech expert Gray. Cantankerous minister Mark Amidon (Aidan McArdle) plays the role of the logical counterpoint to both men, keeping the plot from becoming lost in its exploration of faith. The cottage serves as the film's forum to explore its themes of nihilism, doubt, the crisis of faith, and agnosticism. Shades of Robin Hardy's 1973 classic The Wicker Man run throughout The Borderlands' rural England setting. Luscious countryside and amiable, if rather withdrawn, locals contrast uncomfortably with ominous churches and the occult. As the mystery progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that either the disturbed local priest who reported the miracle or, ugh, the menacing gang youths are responsible. Outraged, I was ready to crush to ending like the scales at Fat Fighter's weekly weigh-in. And then in the last fifteen minutes Goldner throws an unexpected curve ball.

Now you know me, there are few things I appreciate as much as an effectively paced horror movie. Except for blaming my farts on colleagues. Which is fortunate as for the majority of its runtime The Borderland is all atmosphere without the payoff. The only monsters present are those that live inside and define us. As chilling as the atmosphere is, man can not exist on it alone. Goldner knows this and takes a firm grasp of the reigns for the final stretch. I would take no pleasure in spoiling the ending as, in my opinion, it is worth the price of admission alone. What I will say is that it becomes increasingly claustrophobic until all chance of a finale reprieve is snuffed out. From the sprawling countryside shots at the beginning of the movie, the environments become increasingly secluded, until the uncomfortable culmination in the bowels of the church. An elaborate trap has been prepared from the very beginning but only now that there's no chance of escape do we recognise the danger. The final sequence of the movie, gloriously Lovecraftian in its execution, really stuck with me; all the more so after realising its depressing inevitability. It continued to occupy my mind for many a long sweaty sleeplessness night. Rather impressive actually; I haven't been this disturbed by an amateur recording since uncovering a video of my uncle recreating the Buffalo Bill dance scene. Somehow wearing even fewer clothes.

"I've seen things..."