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by Ellis Reed
Found footage horror movies are, to put it bluntly, a mixed bag. They’re easy to make, but the financial returns can be astronomical, which means there’s an awful lot of them.
As early as 2011 Philip Green rolled his eyes at ‘that moribund branch of the genre, the ‘found footage’ picture.’ A year later, The Devil Inside (William Brent Bell, 2012) made a hundred times its budget, despite having only a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. For every sincere filmmaker working in the field, there must be half a dozen Del Boys trying their luck. ‘The scariest thing about ‘The Devil Inside’,’ wrote Manohla Dargis for the New York Times, ‘is that a major studio like Paramount Pictures… may be able to squeeze more profit out of a tedious, tediously exhausted sub-genre.’
But when it’s good – and it sometimes really is good – it can be irresistible. I’m firmly on the side of Luiz H. C., who made a passionate case for the technique at Bloody Disgusting: ‘I’m willing to wade through a sea of low-effort found-footage cash-grabs,’ he wrote, ‘just to find those rare gems that prove all you really need to make a movie is a camera and an idea.’
Which brings us nicely to The Borderlands (Elliot Goldner, 2013) – or Final Prayer, as it was strangely renamed for US audiences. It’s not as basic as a camera and an idea, but it’s certainly on the lower end of the budget range. Among connoisseurs, it has a reputation for being terrifying; even veteran critic Mark Kermode wasn’t immune to its horrifically unsettling final act. ‘In the last fifteen minutes,’ he said, ‘I started to think, ‘Blimey, this is really getting to me, this is really getting under my skin. I actually think I may have to leave the cinema.’ At the same time, I thought, ‘What a horrible feeling but what a wonderful feeling. How great to have a movie that’s genuinely creeping me out…’
The premise is a fertile breeding ground for terror. After hearing reports of ‘miracles’, a Vatican team descends on a rundown Devon church. The investigators are Brother Deacon, a dour Scotsman; Father Mark, a pompous Irishman; and Gray, the agnostic English cameraman. As you might expect from this trifecta of nationalities, there are laughs along the way, but the film’s punchline is far from funny. Earlier, I put the word ‘miracles’ in quotes because I would’ve sent for an exorcist (and possibly a clean pair of pants) before I gave the miracle squad a ring. Father Mark has a wonderful line to the same effect: ‘If you can tell me which one of the awful events we’ve witnessed constitutes a ‘miracle’,’he says drily, ‘I’ll be sure to inform my undersecretary.’
The film is a brilliant example of how found footage can work and what it looks like when it does, but the makers knew it had a toxic reputation. ‘It was one of the few things that was part of the brief initially,’ said producer Jennifer Handorf, ‘and when the film was finished, the sub-genre had become so passé that the distributor was begging us to distance ourselves from it in any way possible.’ A popular complaint can be summed up in one question: why are they filming this? It’s the elephant in the room of the genre, but The Borderlands tackles it head-on.
This means we watch a number of unremarkable moments that no one would film without requiring the characters to be film students or self-obsessed millennials. ‘If you put the work in and you’re really conscientious,’ says Handorf, ‘it doesn’t have to be lazy.’ Deacon (played by Gordon Kennedy) and Gray (played by Robin Hill) have a fine rapport as the film’s ‘odd couple’, and the headcams show this in the round. ‘Rob [Hill] and I just got on, right from the off,’ says Kennedy. ‘The first 20 minutes could be dull exposition, but we worked on making the characters believable.’ Matt Glasby has observed that ‘for the most part, it’s the interplay between these two lively, lived-in characters that holds the interest.’
But it is a horror film, so let’s discuss the horror. In an early fright, a gang of youths burn a sheep alive in the grounds of the team’s cottage. To begin with, we don’t know what’s happening, so the audio is truly alarming. Immediately after, we cut to Father Crellick – the local padre who’s been cheerleading the ‘miracles’ – praying alone in the church. The shadows and ambient sound are frankly terrifying, and it’s no small relief when we cut back to the cottage.
One of my favourite sequences comes at the halfway mark when Gray fills the church with analogue radios. Before long, the white noise and theremin sounds give way to crying children, dismissed by Father Mark as simple interference. A crucifix slides off the side of the rumbling altar—but they see Father Crellick snooping at the window. Suspecting trickery, Father Mark goes to find him while Gray and Deacon stay in the church.
The crying sound, which recalls the wailing cats from Ghostwatch, continues when the radio is switched off. A crucifix falls loudly from the wall; a very effective jump scare. Crellick is pursued to the top of the bell tower where he jumps to his death, surviving the fall long enough for a second jump scare at the bottom. It’s a superb moment of horror, setting a tone that darkens as the film progresses.
The finale itself is one of the great moments of British horror, and arguably an all-time highlight of the found footage genre. Deacon asks his mentor, Father Calvino, to conduct an exorcism in the church. ‘All that remains,’ Calvino says optimistically, ‘is the finishing ritual’ – and from there…it all goes horrifically pear-shaped.
In the resulting confusion, Deacon and Gray search for their colleagues down a hidden stairway, exploring a labyrinth where infants were sacrificed to a pagan god. Not only that, but they find gruesome proof that the custom survived to the Nineteenth Century when the resident padre ‘found a new master’ under the church. Deeper and deeper they go, reaching a tunnel so narrow they have to crawl.
The culmination of this sequence is as memorable as it is chilling. The tunnel closes at both ends, trapping the men. Amid the panic, they’re doused in acid and digested alive. The tunnel walls rumble and gurgle in a way that seems distinctly organic, and we can only surmise that the labyrinth and pagan god are one and the same, with the heroes literally deep within its bowels. The scene finishes with Gray screaming and Deacon praying. The film ends there.
As I said before, the filmmaking team knew that found footage had a poor reputation, and Handorf even asked friends and fans why they hated the sub-genre. ‘A lot of the time we just got back: ‘Everything, why would you bother? It’s a dead (sub) genre.’ But the resulting film demonstrates incredibly effectively why one would bother. It combines likeable characters and genuine scares with a truly horrifying dénouement. It could have been shot as a traditional feature, but it’s hard to imagine it having the same impact or creeping dread.
One last note from me: I’ve been spelling ‘Gray’ with an ‘a’, as per the credits. However, the name appears briefly on-screen as ‘Grey’ in a scare so subtle it’s almost an Easter Egg. Have you spotted it?
The Borderlands is available to stream now via Amazon Prime
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