“Insufferable prick makes documentary” is the premise behind a good eighty percent of all found-footage horror films, but he real departure here is that The Borderlands is actually really good, when it eventually gets going. It invokes the parochial horror of The Blair Witch Project and the always-on Big Brother-style paranoia of Paranormal Activity, with a smattering of The Wicker Man and a bit of The Descent thrown in for good measure. So far, so standard. However, the biggest impression I got from the head-mounted cameras and the jokey, Cockney banter, was that the film plays like a particularly scary episode of hit Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show. This isn’t the only sitcom reference to be found here – there’s a priest named Father Crellick (suspiciously similarly to Father Ted‘s Ted Crilly, perhaps?), and one of the main characters is played by Gordon Kennedy, actor and comedian who UK viewers will recognise as a regular face on TV with appearances most recently in Sherlock, among others.
This all adds together to a strange, and strangely watchable, parapsychological fable. Kennedy, Aidan McArdle and Robin Hill play a pair of Vatican investigators, sent to the West Country to look into reports of bizarre happenings in a remote church, to verify them and see if whatever is going on qualifies as a miracle. What this means is that the first half of the film is basically a mystery thriller, about how this vicar is faking what looks like a pretty solid religious event. Just like in The Wicker Man, the scares here begin as a series of relatively low-wattage happenings that get increasingly worse as the film goes on. It soon becomes clear that the team aren’t welcome in this little community, and more to the point, that something more powerful than they’d perhaps anticipated has other ideas. On first impressions, Grey and Deacon might seem like a mismatched couple but as the film wears on it turns out that Deacon has been in this position before – a small town that is less than willing to reveal its secrets to outsiders – and he’s not about to let it go without a fight.
While functionally useless – they weren’t actually used for the making of the film – there’s dramatic irony going on with the use of head-mounted cameras in that we’re privy to happenings before the cast aware of them, as the differing levels of visual interference the cameras experience changes with the paranormal activity in the area. I’m fully aware that this sort of thing has been done before but it’s really, really creepy, and a very effective way of ramping up the tension, when all the equipment is going wrong around them and they have no idea. For a film that is basically in a church, it has a surprising amount of original shocks up its liturgical sleeve. Most of them involving loud noises and people drunkenly stumbling around in the dark.
Then, as the ending kicks in, the whole thing takes an insane left turn and becomes something completely different. I really don’t want to say what happens, but let’s just say that there is a more powerful force behind what’s going on, and that this force is ultimately destructive. I really did not anticipate how the film would end, nor could I, but it ends up elevating the production and making it more than just another found footage movie. There are a few plot points that completely don’t make sense, and in fact if you think about it, the ending sort of wrecks the very idea of the film being composed of “found footage”, but the fun you’re having watching it is so much fun that you really don’t care at that point. It’s bleak, dark, suffocating, claustrophic, and incredibly atmospheric, and so much better than it has any right to be.