With a proliferation of so-called “found footage” horror films released in the last decade or so (the recent glut having been started by the mediocre The Blair Witch Project, itself a cheeky copy of Ruggero Deodato’s infamous and hideously compelling Cannibal Holocaust), new filmmakers choosing to dip into this rather tired subgenre had better bring something new to the table in order to deflect accusations of unoriginality.
Whilst the British horror mockumentary The Borderlands does manage to offer some slight refrain from the worst generic excesses of such films — not least by resisting the urge to foul up the film’s visual narrative with endless sequences of “shaky-cam”, an unwelcome, irritating and vastly overused technique that renders scenes chaotic, incomprehensible and often nausea-inducing – it still fails to imbue the genre with anything remarkable.
The premise of Elliot Goldner’s film is quite fun but wholly implausible: a small team affiliated with the Vatican are sent to a village community in rural England to investigate the provenance of supposed paranormal activity emanating from the local Catholic Church. The group is headed by Deacon (the Scottish comedian Gordon Kennedy), a despondent and alcoholic chief investigator who approaches claims of the supernatural with jaded scepticism. He is joined by Gray (Robin Hill), an open-minded, jocular and enthusiastic IT specialist who embraces the project as some kind of weird adventure. Gray’s function is to rig the church and the investigating personnel with cameras and various tech gear to monitor and capture any ghostly happenings that may occur.
All the shots in the film are either taken from the POV of various CCTV cameras in the church, or more often from hand-held or head-mounted cameras operated by the main protagonists. (If this all sounds very familiar, that’s because it is). As the main duo, Kennedy and Hill give good performances, and they’re supported by a few adequate peripheral characters: Father Crellick (Luke Neal), the priest who could be faking the supernatural activity, and Mark (Aidan McArdle), the team’s slight, nervy assistant.
The Borderlands is clearly a very low budget film, which gives the narrative both an appealingly simple realism and stark production value; however, the paucity of finance inevitably also translates into a lack of visual action, too. Just like the unfathomably popular Paranormal Activity, The Borderlands has little sustained suspense, and often relies on tired old horror film tropes to generate frights. Take, for example, the list of endless, lazy jump scares, consisting of shock edits synched with loud, random noises: see Gray — playing a practical joke in the church — jump from behind a pew to scare both Deacon and the audience; see someone supposedly as dead as stone suddenly rejuvenate just long enough to firmly grab Deacon’s wrist and mumble a premonitory word or two regarding the group’s impending doom.
Even the sudden appearance of a potential and distant graveyard ghost is met with the inexplicably loud sound of a whip crack. Quite why is anyone’s guess.
The much-heralded sound design is excessive and clichéd overall, a tapestry of cacophonous, multi-layered effects that are intended, no doubt, to draw attention away from the lack of visual spectacle. This technique is occasionally effective (particularly unsettling is the early CCTV footage from the church at night, capturing low rumbling and a baby’s faint cries), but it soon becomes irksome as the volume increases exponentially, leaving the viewer longing to actually see something palpable onscreen.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great believer in keeping one’s cinematic spooks well hidden, but silence is always far creepier than noise and bluster if one is trying to create a tense atmosphere. Watch Jack Clayton’s The Innocents to see how effective quiet and subtle spectres can be. By comparison, the sound designers on The Borderlands have quite literally turned things up to eleven, somewhat unwisely perhaps.
There are issues with some the film’s production design, too. The filmmakers have tried to create a sense of rural isolation, but many of the location interiors belie this. For example, what should be the unwelcoming and apocryphal country pub in deepest Devon (think of a West Country version of The Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London) actually resembles a large, modern and airy-looking gastro pub, with what looks like a modern bar and an extensive fine wine list chalk-boarded on the wall. Additionally, the film’s inevitable and requisite “we don’t like outsiders” scene takes place in this pub, an establishment that appears to be populated largely by young, clean-cut actors straight out of drama school in London, rather than the ruddy-faced bumpkins the film probably needed.
That said, despite the shortcomings in production design, by far the best aspects of the film are the excellent ecclesiastical locations: damp, mossy and organically-rendered by director of photography Eben Bolter.
With the majority of the film shot in and around a real church in the overcast village of Denbury, the building’s dark, reverberating catacombs and stone spiral staircases winding down to inky blackness are genuinely foreboding-looking places, even if their strangeness and paranormal potential doesn’t always translate tangibly into the director’s fictional realm. In common with many films shot in genuinely haunting locations, I’d imagine that filming at night around such ancient architecture must have been far more frightening for the actors and crew than it has ultimately transpired to be for the audience watching the finished film.
Interestingly, just like The Blair Witch Project, The Borderlands finally comes alive at the very end, when it’s all a little too late, unfortunately. Whilst I can heartily recommend the film’s unpleasant and disturbing finalé, which I quite seriously suggest you skip if you’re at all claustrophobic, The Borderlands doesn’t offer anything unique.
There are no extras on the disc.