With horror so often being a meditation on the inevitability of death, the spectre of religion casts a long shadow over the genre, from The Exorcist to The Omen, manifestations of evil who were fought by or predicted by religious doctrine, yet even in the physical sense the shadow of the church is a dark place, the section of the graveyard where suicides were interred, never to have the blessing of the sun shine upon them. Supposedly a place of sanctuary, they are often the oldest buildings in any village, places of history, haunted by memory if not by the supernatural.
Summoned to the village of Balcombe following an unexplained event captured on a Christening video, the altar shaking, the heavy crucifix moving and tumbling, interference on the vision, the Vatican’s investigative team are wary that even with the best of intentions the incident may have been staged. “We’re here to observe and report, then move on,” Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) explains to overly eager Father Crellick (Luke Neal). “They only recognise miracles on very rare occasions,” he says, but out of earshot voices his concern that fakery could send them back to the middle ages.
A sceptic who has seen con artists and crazies and expects a simple explanation for the moving objects, Deacon regards the jumps and distortion on the video as a glitch. Having seen first-hand the damage that people desperate for the approval and recognition of mother church can do to themselves and others, he is jaded and cynical. Accompanying him and taking care of all technical aspects is Gray (Robin Hill), arrogant and unlikeable, whining through his tasks, a tiresome jobsworth who is rude to everyone, a contrast to the weary but more professional Deacon.
The feature debut of director Elliot Goldner, The Borderlands uses the English countryside and the inherent spookiness of a run-down yet still active church to good advantage, yet the few good ideas in his script are underdeveloped and undermined by the decision to present the film as found footage, a format whose few creative possibilities have long since been exhausted and now actively disengage the viewer from the events supposedly captured.
Purporting to be raw footage rather than a carefully edited motion picture is too often a justification for padding, but it’s a sign of desperation when a film opens with almost fifteen minutes of inconsequentialities before Gray and Deacon arrive on site, pointless scenes of camera equipment laid out followed by setting up the cameras in the church when they finally do arrive, the illusion periodically broken by artful interludes of weather sweeping across the countryside, sunrises and sunsets moody and beautiful yet inappropriate for what it pretends to be.
An inventive way around the limitations of the format is the characters playing CD’s appropriate to the moment in order to provide an “in scene” soundtrack, but as is standard of the subgenre, argument supersedes dialogue too often, when the overbearing Vatican liaison Mark (Aidan McArdle) arrives and when Deacon resists wearing his head mounted cameras though the key objection that it makes the characters look like they’re taking part in a boyband reunion a quarter century past their prime is never stated.
With aspects of The Stone Tape giving way to The Descent, there are atmospheric moments, though the most shocking and disturbing is tangential to the plot and never developed, but inevitably all is variations on a theme seen too many times before, torches in the gloomy catacombs replacing torches in the night forest as the characters finally venture beneath the church when it all goes Boca del Infierno. Possibly more disturbing on paper than realised on film, the overall result is tedious and as ultimately pointless as any investigation into a unprovable phenomenon, no more entertaining than a group of friends playing hide and seek in the woods and considerably less rewarding as it doesn’t involve any actual exercise or fresh air.