The Borderlands (2013)

The Borderlands first published by FilmDivider

“Have a cracking day, mate”, says cocky audiovisual technican Gray (Robin Hill), after his request to a local villager for directions to the parish church has been met with only a gormless silence.  “Good luck with Edward Woodward!”

It is an early, self-conscious hint that The Borderlands is conjuring the spirit of Robin Hardy‘s Woodward-starring The Wicker Man, which also features smalltown conspiracy and heathen heterodoxy. Meanwhile, the opening sequence of The Borderlands, in which Catholic investigator Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) is shown looking into an unexplained incident abroad – in this case in Belem, Brazil – has pointed instead to the structure of another 1973 picture: William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist.

What is new(ish) here is the use of a ‘found footage’ frame, with everything that we see and hear supposedly being recorded from the multiple surveillance videos, headcams and mics that Gray has set up.

Named less for its West Country setting than for the shifting boundaries that it establishes between realism and the supernatural, Christianity and paganism, writer-director Elliot Goldner‘s feature debut occupies a grey area – indeed, Gray’s name is significant – where the beliefs and assumptions of modernity are shaken to their foundations by something eerie and ancient.

“That’s nature for you, Deacon. Big stuff eating little stuff.” So says Gray of a dog devouring a rabbit outside the recently reopened parish church that they are investigating together. Gray, Deacon and Vatican Realtor General Father Mark Amidon (Aidan McArdle) have been tasked with assessing strange events videotaped during a baby’s christening in the church. Mark and Deacon are convinced that the local priest Father Crellick (Luke Neal) has faked the incident to expand his tiny flock. Yet as the weird occurrences compound, Deacon begins to wonder whether what they are experiencing is not so much a Christian miracle as something beyond the Church’s province, and altogether harder to swallow.

As he plays the comic clown to Kennedy’s straight man Deacon, Hill brings an earthy humour here that is reminiscent of his rôle in Ben Wheatley‘s Down Terrace, grounding The Borderlands‘ weirder narrative byroads in absurdly mundane hilarity. This, combined with the shakicam and the banal ordinariness of the Wiltshire village, with its “betting shop, fish bar, laundry” and of course pub, lends the film a low authenticity that soon clashes with its more unsettling elements.

Meanwhile Deacon’s attempts to debunk a video as fraudulent also serves to deconstruct the naturalistic fictions of the very found footage that we are watching. Deacon’s arguments with Grey and Mark introduce a dialectic of faith and fakery that is key to our reception of The Borderlands itself, as scientific rationalism must compete with both manipulative chicanery and the ineffably, monstrously divine – and superstitions, once dismissed, have a habit of biting back.

Goldner’s own faked recordings are full of half truths half-glimpsed, which will amply repay a rewatch without ever giving away the whole magic trick. Much of the film’s insidious impact derives from his studied refusal to connect all the dots, so that by the end we, no less than the priests, become lost in the circling labyrinth, or trapped in the holes, of this worm-that-turns story.

An early scene in which a living sheep is set alight outside the trio’s house is horrifying in its own right but we are never sure whether this act of cruelty is merely an isolated prank, or a warning, or a ritualistic symbol, or even a foreshadowing of a rather different kind of live burning. Likewise, Goldner leaves the precise relationship between Deacon’s Brazilian and English escapades tantalisingly oblique. Buried deep in these narrative gaps lurk the irrational and the uncanny, waiting to feed on our uncertainties.

Soon the characters will abandon the carefully erected structure of their, and our, modern belief systems for something more atavistic and appetitive that lies beneath, dormant yet undeniable. The Borderlands might dramatise the precarious footing of Catholicism – and science – or the ultimate failure of colonialism, or the return of the repressed, but mostly it takes the viewer to a deep dark place of nightmares, where reason is devoured by the primordial shadows.

strap: Elliot Goldner’s found-footage folk horror takes us to a deep dark place of nightmares, where reason is devoured in the primordial shadows.

© Anton Bitel