The recent glut of found-footage horror has made it easy to be snobby about the sub-genre, but there’s never been anything inherently wrong with it, as independent British horror The Borderlands proves. By combining the wobbly-cam technique with a strong script and excellent central performances, this is a chilling reminder of how good found footage can be.
Veteran investigator Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and mouthy techie Gray (Robin Hill) arrive in a small village in the West Country to investigate an apparent miracle in a small church.
Deacon carries the weight of a lifetime of “acts of God” proving to be fakes and coincidences, while agnostic Gray is thrilled by the idea that something supernatural might actually be happening. Is it a fake perpetrated by a priest looking to raise the profile of his parish, or is something more sinister taking place?
Elliot Goldner’s debut as writer/director uses a lot of the familiar found-footage tropes, but where The Borderlands succeeds is in understanding that handheld camerawork, “what-was-that?” boo scares and panicked off-screen voices aren’t an excuse to neglect the plot, dialogue or characters.
After an ominous prologue in South America, a good deal of time is spent developing the extremely likeable lead pair as they settle into the village and begin their investigation. Kennedy and Hill are excellent; finding the humour in their characters at no expense to our suspension of disbelief. In fact, the stories of Vatican investigations gone wrong and discussions of faith are made all the more convincing because they take place over a drink at the pub or in the living room of a rented cottage.
The latter will be familiar to Ben Wheatley fans, having starred as short-fused son Karl in Down Terrace (as well as popping up in Kill List), while Kennedy is a veteran of everything from Sherlock to Red Dwarf. There’s also a strong turn from Aidan McArdle as Deacon’s officious superior who seems very keen to wrap things up quickly.
Anchoring the film in the everyday stands the film in very good stead as The Borderlands enters its second half. Some well-deployed boo-scares keep the tension high, and the mystery of what exactly is going on is developed at a deliberate, effective pace. There’s a real sense of atmosphere and menace here that doesn’t just come from its chosen camera technique.
Excellent sound design and that strong sense of pacing ensure that the film’s grip on the viewer doesn’t stop tightening. There’s a wobble or two as the film heads into its final third, but the mystery of the church’s past is handled with the right combination of hints and exposition (HP Lovecraft is an obvious and welcome inspiration) as the film builds towards a strong finish.
Instead of drawing so much on folklore, old ghost stories or menacing hoodies (although all these things play a part), the strongest element of The Borderlands’ identity as a British horror film is its central relationship. Deacon and Grey’s bickering, boredom and bonding has the easy chemistry of a flat-share comedy in the best possible way (the head-cam shots are occasionally a little reminsicent of Peep Show), and if we didn’t like the characters so much, their fear in the face of the unknown would be far less affecting. As it is, The Borderlands is a tense, atmospheric chiller that will send a shiver down your spine and definitely make you jump.