Thursday 4 May 2017

We Don't Go Back – Guest Post: The Borderlands (2013)

Another guest post today, this time from friend and critical sparring partner Jon Dear. Jon is still among the most knowledgeable people I know on the subject of TV and film, and has recently started up his own blog, Views From a Hill, where he's been rewatching Twin Peaks and offering illuminating insight into a bunch of old TV shows I haven't even heard of, let alone seen. Over to Jon.

This review will spoiler the hell out of the film. So if you’ve yet to see it and you want to, and have any intention of enjoying it, please watch the film before reading this review. I’ll wait...
“Why do you watch horror films?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked occasionally. For a horror film to work, for it to do its job, it must have a negative impact upon you. It should engage your fight or flight response even while you’re rationally aware that you’re passively engaging with a work of fiction. Experiencing fear and the resultant adrenaline rush in the safe, controlled environment of a cinema or your home is why many people watch horror films.

A far more interesting question is “what actually scares you about horror films?”

The found footage genre started as a format that could deliberately blur fact and fiction. The two most infamous examples, Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) have their places secured in film history for this very reason. Even in the wider world of television, people of a certain age (like me) remember the BBC’s Ghostwatch (1992) and the naïve terror some people (like me) felt before realising it wasn’t real after all and Sarah Greene hadn’t been got by the malevolent spirit of a child killer. I rewatched Ghostwatch on the big screen during the British Film Institute’s 2013 Gothic season and was struck both by how obviously fake it looks now (the effect of recording on OB tape, and it being watched by an impressionable and slightly disturbed 14 year old boy, rather than a cynical 35 year old man) and how much the setting influenced the effect of the drama on the audience.
Some people still have nightmares about Panorama’s 1957 spaghetti tree hoax. But they’re completely beyond help.
Ghostwatch was broadcast in October 1992 during an economic recession; job losses and business closures were rife throughout the UK. The placing of Ghostwatch in the small home of a lower working class, single parent, all female household, showed how the producers wished to channel sympathy. If this was about a middle class family in an affluent neighbourhood, we’d all be hoping they’d be dead before dawn.

This is when I belated realised what scares me about horror: it’s not the shocks or the power of the supernatural, it’s the effect of such terror on characters you care about.

Most horror fans enjoy predicting who will survive and who will die; indeed the PS4 game, Until Dawn (Will Byles, 2015) has this as its central premise. You get to decide who lives and who dies, if you make the right decisions under pressure. Plenty of American horror films are stacked with teenagers that will not make it. The post-modern Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) makes a point of explicating explaining the rules of horror movie survival and then following them to the letter. It literally tells you who’s going to die. Found footage of course, goes one stage further: by virtue of its nature no one should get out alive.

Today’s audiences are long past watching a found footage film and wondering if it’s real, the Paranormal Activity (2007-2015) series of films ensuring they are now firmly part of the mainstream. Films like The Chernobyl Diaries (Brad Parker, 2012) and The Dyatlov Pass Incident (Renny Harlin,1 2013) are sold on showing attractive American teenagers being picked off in suitably alien environments. We’re a long way from Heather Donahue’s snotty terror but it doesn’t feel like progress.
Giving it both barrels.
A found footage film should feel like it couldn’t be told any other way, and on that score The Borderlands isn’t on solid ground.

After a prologue of a Brazilian Police video clearing up at a site where there’s clearly been an incident, we’re in a cottage in England. A cottage where Grey (Robin Hill2), a technician, is fixing up cameras all over the place (he’s wearing a headcam too).

What’s happening in the cottage, you wonder? Well, nothing. Nothing happens in the cottage apart from a whole lot of info dumping. And this is one problem found footage films cannot solve adequately: having the camera point somewhere the viewer needs to see but it may not be in the character’s interest to do so. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) may be a whole lot of fun to watch but it’s littered with incidences where you feel the character would just drop the camera and run, and that can take you out of the drama. This lesson seems to have been learnt with sequel-of-sorts 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016), where the found footage format is dispensed with altogether, to the film’s significant benefit.

Here, in a cottage in Devon we’re told that cameras need to be in every room in the cottage and head cams must be worn at all time as so that the investigation catches every scrap of dialogue from the team, as previously vital information has been lost. The local Priest of a newly reconsecrated Catholic Church has witnessed what he claims are miracles at the church’s first new Baptism (objects moving, the bells ringing by themselves) and the Vatican send in a team to investigate. The team consists of two priests, Deacon and Matt (Gordon Kennedy and Aidan McArdle) and a lay technician, our friend Grey. It doesn’t suggest Opus Dei’s finest3 but perhaps there’s a reason for that.
Didn’t even get £200 off Jeremy Beadle.4
The film is bold in how unhurried it is, its lingering shots and slightly off angles buying time as the viewer waits for the unseen menace. We see Grey set cameras up, smoke a roll up and be a bit of an idiot (he can’t find the final camera because he’s wearing it and manages to lock himself out of the cottage). From this we understand Grey as the viewer identification character. Unlike the other two members of the team, he’s not a Priest, and he’s not even particularly religious (“I believe in, y’know, stuff. Just not as much as you two”). He’s the one to ask questions and trip up. He’s the Doctor Who companion. He doesn’t wear a short skirt but he will scream.
Oh how he’ll scream.
This is a film that askes for your indulgence, initially focussing on the emerging friendship between Deacon and Grey, two chalk and cheese work colleagues, thrown together. Add in Mark, the head of the investigation, and you have all the ingredients of a buddy cop film: Mark, the by-the-book boss, Deacon, the cynical hard drinker who’s insubordinate but gets the job done and Grey, the naïve rookie.
And there are no women.
When the first shock comes, a sheep being burnt alive at the back of their cottage, it’s almost out of nowhere. Almost. You’ve seen glimpses of surly, hooded youths hanging round, people checking the cottage out at night and an uncommunicative local whom Grey mocks by referencing The Wicker Man (“Good luck with Edward Woodward.” Oh how right he is) but this is still a rapid pace change. It does one thing very effectively; it stops you thinking of the cottage as a safe space. The Pagan Village Conspiracy is go!
This is the real reason men never ask for directions.
At the church we meet Father Crellick (Luke Neal), who’s reported the “miracle”, and his congregation of two. The priests think this is all just a rouse to gain the church notoriety and thus visitors but via the cameras that Grey sets up in the church, the viewer is left in little doubt that Crellick isn’t behind these happenings.

Deacon takes the Parish records to pore over, but is most interested in a diary he finds among them. It’s written by the last minister of the church before it closed, Pritchard Mandeville, who set up an orphanage in the village in the 19th century. The diary talks of unpleasant locals and clearly meant to infer that whatever causes the local to be unfriendly to outsiders has been happening for quite a while. This piece of info dumping is so obvious that Deacon himself comments that it must have been planted by Crellick for him to find. Having your lead character point out that your own plot device is too obvious is almost David Lynch-like in its audacity yet I think just about works. And you know it'll get a call back.

The character of Crellick is, sadly, a major weak point of the film, both in terms of Neal's performance, which is a little too “theatrical”, and in terms of his function in the drama. Is he under the influence of whatever’s causing the happenings? If he thinks the happenings are the actions of God, why is he so afraid when praying in the church at night? And ultimately, why does he kill himself? He wails about what the happenings might be if they’re not miracles and then throws himself off the bell tower, and it’s, well, quite a leap for a doubting priest to commit a mortal sin. He’ll return to haunt Deacon before too long but the character is frustrating in his inconsistencies.

Crellick’s death scene is at least nicely shot for a production that clearly doesn’t have a stunt man. The whole sequence is shown from Mark’s perspective. He’s looking at Crellick standing by the edge of the bell tower, he glances back as the church bell peals by itself and when he looks back we just see the last of Crellick’s cassock disappearing over the edge. It’s economical film making at its finest.

The central scene of the film is suitably low key: Deacon and Grey discuss Pagan vs Christian religion and boil it down to worship of the corporeal vs the abstract.

Deacon’s point – that the ancient Pagans didn’t know what those things were any more than what God is, they just interpreted them in a way could understand – is certainly right, but within the fiction of the film that argument is somewhat undermined when they’re both eaten by a giant worm at the film’s climax.

There’s a lovely exchange in the Doctor Who serial The Robots of Death (BBC, 1977) that sums the issue up rather well:
Uvanov: But robophobia is a mental thing, right?
The Doctor: Oh, yes, yes, it is, until one gets its hands around your neck.
Philosophical arguments are all very well, but they’re not much use when you’re being eaten by a thing you claim doesn’t exist.

And yet this isn’t a film that seeks to undermine Christianity. I’ve read reviews that says Deacon is totally faithless at the end but I don’t see that at all. He’s hardly the first Christian to die because his faith placed him in harm’s way and he won’t be the last, and anyway, reciting the Lord’s Prayer as your body dissolves isn’t exactly the sign of a soul that has rejected his God.

What the film does say is that there were things here before Christianity and they don’t play by your rules. Which is pretty much straight-up HP Lovecraft territory. And this is why the exorcism conducted by the Vatican historian, Father Calvino (Patrick Godfrey) is doomed to fail. Trying to banish evil spirits with incantations is one thing but less effective against actual monsters.

Corporeal 1-0 Abstract.

How the giant worm under the church affects its surroundings is as unexplained as it is irrelevant. They are regular horror film markers, which scare the audience and sustain a feeling of dread. They largely succeed. In the first chapter of Mark Fisher’s essay The Weird and the Eerie he discusses how Lovecraft contains or localises realism, all the better to ground it and contrast with the weird and fantastical. And that’s what we have here.

Grey not noticing that a grave stone temporarily bears his name is chilling, being attacked by a grumpy dog less so. The scenes with the Deacon being stalked by Crellick’s ghost in the fields surrounding the church and being mocked for his failure in Belem also work well. And finding Crellick’s cassock covered in worms is a foreshadowing of their grizzly fate.
Smoking kills, kids.
Of course the idea that the Pagan deity might actually be a real, living creature is a revelation that waits for the very end of the film, and any subsequent viewing of The Borderlands is robbed of this power. The final sequences with Deacon and Grey in the tunnels deep in the hillside by the church are suitably unnerving and claustrophobic, carried well by the two actors. Grey’s terror feels so real and when you discover Pritchard Mandeville sacrificed all the children in the orphanage to their Pagan god, you still don’t know it’s real. Only when they are both literally in the belly of the beast, with Grey screaming “You said it wasn't real!” do you understand. There’s no “Oh mighty Sun God” here, no ceremony, just death. And like the best horror films, you realise what’s happening the instant before the characters do. They have been sacrificed as food to a giant worm that lives in the hillside that the church was built on. And all the villagers know.
Gordon Burns.5
The Borderlands is not perfect by any means. It’s certainly bold but is too restricted by the found footage format, which works well in the church and in the caves but becomes a burden in the cottage and pub sequences. Director Elliott Goldner punctuates the narrative with some evocative wide shots of the Devon landscape but it would have been better to have been bolder still and used a mixture of found footage style and conventional camera work. But it’s a film that takes time to draw you in to the central characters and it all the more effective for it.

It certainly wears its influences in its sleeve. From its title, which would seem to be influenced (like so much horror) by William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908); through to the use of analogue sound equipment, so reminiscent of The Stone Tape (BBC, 1972); to the scratching sound in the walls, invoking Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls (1924), the influence of Lovecraft adding as a useful pointer to the film’s climax.

The Borderlands disturbed me far more than I expected, and I hoped through writing this review I’d discover why. Its slow build up lulls you into a false sense of security, and the humour between the two leads makes the later horror all the more jarring. Ultimately as you get to like Deacon and Grey, you’re all the more affected by their fate. Two friends, one of whom drinks heavily, both slightly ill at ease and far from civilisation, die in pain, fear and despair. And with that, I think I know what scared me: it’s Withnail and I, as written by HP Lovecraft.

I've some extremely distressing news.

1I know right, Renny bloody Harlin. That’s how mainstream found footage is now. (back)
2Better known as an editor than he is as an actor, and for his regular collaborations with Ben Wheatley. (back)
3The Congregation for the Causes of Saints is a fascinating subject in itself but sadly there isn’t room to discuss here with all my crap jokes and Doctor Who references. (back)
4I know Jeremy Beadle’s dead, that’s the point of the joke. (back)
5C’mon. C’MON! (back)