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Sunday, 25 August 2013

THE BORDERLANDS (LONDON FRIGHTFEST/ 2013 WORLD PREMIERE) ~ does for the West Country what The Wicker Man did for Summerisle . . .

~ Some plot spoilers may be hiding in the scrumpy - watch before reading! ~

Every so often, a film comes along that makes you rethink your approach to cinema and, in the case of the terrific THE BORDERLANDS, with its found footage frights (an already overly-tired genre that too often smacks a weakened punch these days) we have something genuinely special: a low-budget British horror film that's bloodier, barmier and certainly eerier than many bigger budgeted Hollywood stabs at the same found footage pie (in the case of this movie - apple and hedgerow blackberry pie, with a healthy dollop of clotted cream on the side).

The Borderlands screened at the 2013 Film4 London FRIGHTFEST and this was its world premier (we are later told the film was edited and completed just days before the screening!) and the audience joined in the fun from the start - they screamed, laughed, and clapped all the way through to the end credits; a real reaction to genuine filmmaking vision and appreciation of what could be a landmark in British horror cinema.


The film starts off quietly with a two man investigative team examining evidence of miracles for secretive (but aren't they always?) Vatican-run organisation called 'The Congregation'. Coming across as a kind of God-fearing Mulder and Scully, the reluctant duo start setting up their surveillance equipment in a rural West Country church and in an old stone cottage nearby where they will be staying for however long it takes them to prove to the Church that the phenomena is faked. The team assigned to the job are: Brother Deacon (played by Gordon Kennedy as a jovial but angst-ridden lowly member of the organisation) and newly-recruited reluctant IT man (and committed atheist) - Gray (Robin Hill as the wrong man in the wrong job in the wrong place at the worst time).
The local church has been experiencing miraculous phenomena (poltergeist activity to you and me) since re-opening its creaky old doors to the public. Some especially troubling footage has been sent to Church leaders of a christening that nearly had the baby spinning its head in the font as all kinds of supernatural chaos erupted around terrified family and pant-wetting priest.

Once, Deacon tells us, with fear in his eyes (or possibly the effect of the local scrumpy) he had to investigate a case of a group of priests actually seeing God in the jungle in Brazil before committing mass suicide (or worse; mass murder). Nobody really knows what happened, or so Deacon tells us - but he never stops telling similar tall tales of miraculous mysteries after a few jars around a cosy log fire. You never know for sure what's fact or fiction in Deacon's booze-sozzled world - his recollections are a bit like those of Quint from Jaws but without the scars to prove it, at least not the physical kind.

Following the madness of Brazil it looks like Deacon may be in for another round of nightmares in this quaint Devon village he's been sent to, especially when the regulars at a local pub start to get increasingly less friendly.

Deacon and Gray kind of get on - and kind of don't. That's how it should be in all the best 'buddy movies' even those rooted in the horror genre. It's the most perfect double act since Abbott and Costello went to Mars (you should probably insert your own favourite movie double act here!). 

Gray's the one who sets up the hi-tech equipment while Deacon seems to spend his time stocking up on provisions from the local store. Later that day, the two drive past a shopping parade that has a chip shop, a bookies and a launderette in a neat row. Deacon tells Gray that right there; on that parade, is all we ever really need in life - a place to be able to eat, to wash and then do something you feel really guilty about doing once in while.

The provisions Deacon invests in for the short stay consist mainly of bottles of local ale, wine and giant bags of crisps. The nights in the cottage are cold and the sounds outside increasingly strange and unhealthy. Inside the cottage, CCTV cameras record every movement. Every closing door. In the church, strange glitches break up the picture and a crucifix falls from the wall while the local priest; Father Crellick (and as played here by Luke Neal, something of a pin-up in the annual Church calendar I'd imagine - alongside the Farmer's Nude Wives kind of charity purchase that you buy from under the counter at rural corner shops!) seems to be going out of his mind and exploring unexplored places in his own church that he should probably keep his holy nose out of.
Luke Neal - 'Trust me, I'm a priest...'

Deacon and Gray are joined by another priest - Father Mark (Aidan McArdle) as events take a turn for the worse. This is a man who clearly spends too much time in one day bleaching and ironing his own dog collar and who has no time for the nervous banter from the rest of his team, both of whom he clearly despises. Father Mark is soon bleeding randomly from both ears after a fall in the church and acting a little strange (the two could be connected!). He even seems to sleep while doing what looks like a 'Devil horns' sign with his left hand. Things are about to get a whole lot worse.

As the phenomena captured on camera from inside the local church gets more frequent and violent, the team is joined by a fourth team member - the elderly and ancient (as the land itself, quite possibly) Father Calvino (Patrick Godfrey, in a cameo role, but adding real priestly gravitas as the team comes under attack).

The wise priest speaks with the voice of hushed authority but also has an unnerving visual similarity to Father 'feck!' Jack from the TV comedy Father Ted! I hope this is at least partly deliberate. Godfrey is no stranger to genre films and also starred recently in the multi-award winning British sci-fi movie - Dimensions (2011) as 'The Professor'.

Patrick Godfrey in Dimensions (2011)

The scene is now set in The Borderlands for all Hell to break loose - and it does. The movie's pleasingly extended and hugely exciting finale takes place in the catacombs under the crumbling old stone church (authentically cold and imposing thanks to some perfectly bleak cinematography compared to the shots of the life-bursting landscape outside). The church has been built over an ancient pagan (and why do peaceful pagans always seem to get such a bad press in these kind of movies?) site where a former priest once started up an orphanage (uh-oh, that starts alarm bells in the bell tower ringing!). This particular priest went - like many of the priests hanging out in this village seem to do - a little crazy; painting ancient signs and symbols on the church walls and scrawling messages about ancient rituals and the darkness around him (if this man had a green pen on him he'd be writing love letters to his favourite pop stars - that kind of crazy!). It soon becomes clear that it's not the pagan rituals or the church that is the heart of the problem here - it's something much older; something that pre-dates everything else.

The final scenes of the movie; moments of true goo horror, resolve only a little (possibly nothing at all) of the fate of some supporting cast members (and at times I started to forget how many priests were running around in those tunnels down there) but the film doesn't stint on giving us a full-on nasty ending; showing far more actual (and authentically horrible) gore than most found footage movies tend to do when ending too often on a final scream off camera (probably to save on production costs). Not in this movie!


Director Elliot Goldner is a quietly spoken man at the Q and A following the screening and is slightly muted out by the flowing comedy banter and frequent insults between Aidan McArdle, Gordon Kennedy and wonderfully enthusiastic producer Jennifer Handorf (who tries to keep the peace, when not starting a fight - especially when she mentions Kennedy being a little "older" than the rest of the crew, prompting his first of many threatened walkouts!). The banter is hilarious though; genuine chemistry on display that is worth the price of admission alone.
But for a quiet man, director Goldner is not at all quiet in his work and his movie is stuffed to bursting point with big, bold, authentically frightening 'good bits'. A sequence involving an approaching ball of flame at night from what seems - at first - as if from far away, is followed by the sound of a screaming creature that chills the blood to frozen. The representation of horrors that lurk outside in the darkness surrounding the rural cottage, are simply some of the most inspired moments I've seen in horror cinema.

Location is used to great effect: the cottage, the bus stop, the local pub, the open fields covered in brambles and broken-down styles, creeping and overgrown Devon country lanes, an old ancient church and a catacomb of tunnels (shot in Chislehurst Caves that the director assures us have their own ancient history of ritual and sacrifice - and I know this to be true, having braved these ancient tunnels myself on more than one occasion and witnessed the carved places in the rock where this sacrifice, perhaps of children, may once have taken place).

'Approach to Druid Altar' © Chislehurst Caves/ 2011

Major Spoiler Paragraphs! Avoid if you wish. . .

There is a 'Nigel Kneale's Stone Tape (BBC/ 1972)' vibe to this movie throughout; of ancient versus modern; an ancient natural technology found on walls and deep beneath the earth we tread on. Director and writer Goldner says this isn't a direct influence though and he was only told of the similarities when noticed by the film's producer. The grisly finale and pulsating tunnel our heroes are trapped in like - for want of a better description - a muddy birth canal, perhaps of Mother Nature herself, is both tremendous and awful. As an ending, I was a little disappointed. In a good way. I didn't want a downbeat finish. I wanted everyone to live! I wanted the team to return for a sequel - more investigations from The Congregation. Many more sequels. Because, simply, as the cast works so well together, this is one team that doesn't need to be split apart - or even sucked into the earth like a satanic sinkhole might do.

There is hope; the ending could just be a vision, a dream, or another bad trip from partaking of that local scrumpy. Because the filmmakers involved with this project need to bring Gray and Deacon back for more assignments - ok? Though some of my initial post-screening scepticism that a nasty end for the leads is too downbeat a finale for what's been a feel-good (while still being very scary) horror from the start, softened as I began to see this as perhaps being something of a cunning plan: bad things do happen to good people in all the best horror cinema, from The Stone Tape to The Wicker Man (where a carnival feel and much singing and dancing - though creepy for sure - give way to one of the most brutal deaths seen in cinema in the closing moments). To allow The Borderlands to be comparable to such classics of the horror genre  allows me some forgiveness for what the film-makers have done!

Now read on . . !

Throughout the uproarious Q and A, writer and director Elliot Goldner is cruelly ribbed (in a jokey way - a joke that everyone is in on; especially Goldner himself) by both Robin Hill and Gordon Kennedy about how they improvised a lot of the script, as: "It wasn't exactly Hamlet - or War and Peace". Hill then deadpans: "And I wouldn't be able to play it if it was, and neither would Gordon!" (prompting Gordon Kennedy to stage another mock storming off stage). It's mea culpa all round though when the laughter dies down and the script is praised for its multi-layered exploration of superstition and ritual in an ancient and modern setting.

The cast also talks about how complex and involved the shooting was with multi-positioned cameras, whether attached to their heads or on the ceilings or walls (giving Hill the perfect excuse to grab hold of producer Jennifer Handorf to show us exactly how he filmed his tunnel-crawling scenes with fellow actor Kennedy and making it look like they must have been as good as copulating in those tunnels at times - joined at the hip for POV effect in a zombie-like conga). "We did it exactly like this," he tells us, thrusting. To which Handorf replies, deadpan: "Not exactly like this."

The actors, we are told, were genuinely terrified in the claustrophobic spaces and tunnels they were forced to squeeze through - their terror and panic on screen all too real. Perhaps more terrifying though is the moment when Robin Hill tells us about the day he went along to his audition for the role of Gray and was told to wear much of the same clothing he already had on for the part as he looked so much like the character that had been written. The rest of the panel jokingly confirm that Robin's personality is also just like the fussy geeky character he plays in the film, and not just in the way he dresses! At least, I think they were joking. . .

I like the cast and crew of The Borderlands a great deal and it was good fun seeing Scottish actor Gordon Kennedy in a horror movie for a change (I still remember him from numerous TV sitcoms and Saturday night shows as well as bigger roles in TV drama like the BBC's recent Robin Hood - as Little John). He's an imposing, charismatic and towering man (I should know - he sat right in front of me and almost crushed my knees thanks to the seats being the kind that rock back as you sit) and an excellent actor - I hope we get to see more of Gordon in horror cinema again soon.

Gordon Kennedy in Robin Hood ©BBC
The Borderlands is the kind of horror movie that reminds you to be still afraid of the dark - simple touches, such as a race across local fields with just a torchlight for company and gorgeously lensed shots of walking or driving down lonely country lanes with overhanging shrubbery (scenery so claustrophobic as to foretell much of the film's inspired finale - making me wonder if this is a deliberate comparison) are masterful touches from a director presenting his first feature-length movie. The cinematography of rural Devon and never-ending caves and their sudden deep drops are simply, quietly, awesome - Eben Bolter take a bow. Sound (from designer Martin Pavey and recordists Peter Cowasji and David Sohanpal) throughout is perfectly judged and I swear this movie has the most distressing, slaughterhouse-terrible noise I've ever been aurally assaulted with since Tobe Hooper brought us the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. 
A special mention must go to the film's casting director; Briony Barnett, who really made this one something extra special; discovering a cast that fits together better than a crucifix around an old priest's neck. The director tells us that originally he planned the role, played by Gordon Kennedy, of Deacon to be Swedish or from some other European location (prompting a third threatened walkout from the star). But the choice of Kennedy in the end is as good a casting decision as it gets, bringing hulking warmth, paranoia and jovial trust to a character who really is heading towards a meltdown in the face of ancient evil in such rural, peaceful surroundings (and Kennedy's punch to the jaw of a local yobbo raises the loudest cheer of all).

The Borderlands is a film where nature, like in The Wicker Man, is a threat in itself. . .

Especially effective is the subtle focusing shot of a small patch of ground-level brambles in the field that Gray sits in when he needs time out from all the spooky stuff.; resting his trainers alongside the overgrown brambles in a quite serene moment of peace between man and nature.  Or is it a way to warn of the location being an environment that looks pretty but that can prick and draw blood if it wants to; a place where even the shrubbery on local roads appears to be closing in on them and be seemingly threatening - or where a lamb in a field is a symbol of unexpected horror (actual violence can be just as ugly in the countryside as it can in an urban setting)?
The idea of a local church being built over a site that's not just ancient burial ground but the kind of ancient land that even church records can't reach adds genuine darkness to the screenplay. Something has to snap here - and something does. But it's the location that's so well-realised as to make the horror never less than fully convincing; on that ancient soil and ritual-stained land out there is a place that could be better at covering up the truth for good than any organised religion could ever have the power to do itself.

The Borderlands is a real treat of a movie - a rural horror masterpiece that does for the West Country what The Wicker Man did for Summerisle. Ancient evil has never been as much fun or a place of horror so cruel and unforgiving as it is here. If this is a last gasp in found footage horror then bring it on - the best has been saved for the last few rites. Crack open a bottle of scrumpy, wear a crucifix around your neck, don't turn off the lights - and enjoy!


Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

'Tunnel archway' image and 'final image' ©Mark Gordon Palmer/ 2013
All images from The Borderlands are ©METRODOME DISTRIBUTION (used with permission).


  1. Good article and couldn't agree more.... loved this film. It really conjured up feelings of creeping dread. Impending doom and intense foreboding. Such an eerie atmosphere.... I must admit I didn't understand the ending straight away, but once I did I was even more horrified at the thought of it than I was upon viewing.... This film stayed with me a long while after it ended

  2. Great review. This is a real gem of a movie!