When writer/director Elliot Goldner’s movie, The Borderlands ended, I sat there in stunned silence for about a minute. I’d heard this was a phenomenal film, but for most of its run, I found it pleasant but I didn’t understand the praise. It was only after the credits started to roll that I realized how much this film had snuck me.
The feeling continued all week, and the week after. The Borderlands is an elegant deception and a film that keeps you completely off-balance by using your own natural assumptions against you. As many people did not understand this film, I must spoil it.
The movies starts with Deacon (a dour Gordon Kennedy) a rather secular Scottish priest who works with the Vatican debunking false miracles and unapproved Saints. When some ‘miracles’ start start happening in a very old British church, Deacon wearily sets out to investigate. He brings along the bubbly Gray (Robin Hill), who is hired to document the goings on.
And then the movie quite unexpectedly turns in a buddy comedy. And a good one.
Simultaneously, the high-strung Father Crellick (Luke Neal) is desperately trying to convince them that something special is happening at his church. Deacon is dubious because the flailing church would gain substantial revenue from being the site of a miracle…and he’s seen people do terrible things to have that happen.
Honestly at this point this seemed like an aimless film. And there are small, random things that continued to happen, that didn’t immediately seem important. This being a horror film, it is obvious that something is going on at the church, but whatever it is, is not clear.
Suddenly the Vatican sends stuffy Father Amidon to oversee the case, which only complicates the investigation, as Deacon relentlessly tries to see how the minor earthquakes, ringing church bells and invisible crying children are faked. It is Gray who tries to keep an open mind.
They find an ancient diary from a corrupted priest that talks about a ‘new master,’ and some horrible secret to the orphanage associated with the church. But the rather cerebral investigation is derailed by the hysteria and suicide of Father Crellick.
Deacon starts to fall apart. The investigation is stopped but there are still no answers, and despite himself, he knows that something is going on in that old, dessicated building. In the middle of the night, he makes a drunken, shoddy investigation that reveals a staircase beneath the church…and the echoes of the case that haunts him still.
He makes a quiet call to Father Calvino, a Vatican expert on esoteric matters and begins one final investigation. Calvino explains (quite truthfully) that Pagans were already on the land when Christianity began to spread, and the Church simply reused their sites, and grafted their ideas onto what the Pagans already believed in.
They called their existing Gods, demons, and created a new divinity for them to worship. But Borderlands makes clear that Christianity is an abstraction, an insubstantial belief, and that native cultures worship what they already knew existed, which is why Calvino’s exorcism is doomed to fail.
It goes spectacularly badly, and Gray and Deacon are drawn down that hidden stairway to find the uncertain fate of Father Calvino and Mark. Beneath the church is a catacomb of sorts. They chase the men further and further in, eventually realizing that centuries ago the local priest had succumbed to the sacrifice of infants to this Pagan God, and it is inferred that Father Crellick’s insistence on re-opening the church (and his infant baptisms) has caused the monster to return. The local orphanage previously served as a supply of sacrifices.
They go further down in the caves, until there is no light and no space and that’s when Borderlands drops its final horror on us. Despite what the film has told us, we still think in terms of Christianity, with its iconography of winged angels and horned demons. This is, however, a Lovecraftian horror, more like the sarlacc of Star Wars…and they crawl right into its stomach.
Borderlands end with them, trapped, screaming in pain, and being slowly digested. Just before the camera finally dies, the faithless Deacon begins to pray.