Theoretically, anyone with a camera and a few friends can make a found-footage horror movie. But as countless lesser examples of the sub-genre have proved in the past, it’s relatively easy to point a wobbling camera at people stumbling about in a dark room, and far more difficult to make the resulting footage scary or entertaining to watch. The Borderlands, the feature debut from British director Elliot Goldner, includes all the shaky-cam hallmarks you’d expect, but thanks to some great writing and a trio of off-beat characters, it manages to stand out from the supernatural horror crowd.
In a small cottage in rural Devon, self-confessed tech geek Gray (frequent Ben Wheatley collaborator Robin Hill) busily straps cameras to both himself and just about every room in the quaint little building. He’s soon joined by Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and Mark (Aidan McArdle), a pair of paranormal investigators working on behalf of the Vatican. They’ve come together to investigate the claims of Father Crellick (Luke Neal), who believes that a malevolent spirit is roaming about in his 12th century church.
The trio are initially sceptical, and set about searching the remote chapel for evidence of fakery. But when inanimate objects start falling from walls and screams begin to echo around the place, non-believer Gray and hard-drinking Deacon begin to change their minds, even as the staunchly rationalist Mark remains unconvinced.
The premise is a familiar one, but The Borderlands’ setting and tone is refreshingly different. For one thing, the gloomy, drizzly British town actually feels like a real British town; Father Clerrick’s congregation is dwindling out of existence, the pub’s low-lit and unfriendly, and a gang of hooded youths hang around the local bus stop, drinking and muttering.
This grounded setting extends to the three central characters, who are far more textured and amusing than the anonymous 20- or 30-something, good-looking protagonists we usually see in the genre. Gray evinces a certain slacker charm, as he cracks jokes about the locals and his colleagues’ religion (“Don’t worry,” he says when the subject of Vatican secrecy comes up, “I’ve read The Da Vinci Code“), while Deacon is equally fun as a man of the cloth who can’t resist a drink or an occasional punch-up with a jeering teenager. With the buttoned-up, comically rational Mark complementing the rough-and-ready nature of the other two, the chemistry between the leads makes for some bewitchingly entertaining moments.
There’s some interesting use of sound, too, as Gray’s tinkering with microphones and recording equipment leads the investigators closer to the source of all the sinister occurrences. Is there really something evil abroad in the old church, or is there a more rational explanation?
The Borderlands provides all the requisite jump-scares, blasts of static and long shadows, yet the film’s at its strongest when the three characters are talking and pondering the nature of what they’re investigating – it’s the stumbling around in the dark and screaming that feels more by-the-numbers. This in itself marks the film out as something slightly unusual, since most found-footage films – see, for a recent example, Devil’s Due – feature leads so generic and unremarkable that it’s almost a relief when they do stop talking.
The Borderlands, on the other hand, introduces some engaging characters and a gently comic tone before piling on the scary bits, and it almost comes as a disappointment when they stop bickering and instead have to sneak around with torches. Even so, Goldner makes the most of his low budget, and from a mere handful of locations, crafts a short, sharp and entertaining little shocker. A sequel – or perhaps even a TV series – featuring the same bickering, mismatched paranormal investigators would by no means be a bad thing.
The Borderlands is out in selected UK cinemas now.
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