It’s a hazardous occupation being an American abroad. Venture north to Canada and you risk being killed and/or consumed by a mythical Wildman (THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY). Head south and you’ll fall foul of either a devastating earthquake or the widespread carnage that proceeds it (AFTERSHOCK). Venture further afield to Africa and there are giant killer crocs to contend with (PRIMEVAL), while Europe’s cultured veneer hides depraved Slovakian psychopaths (HOSTEL), depraved Bulgarian psychopaths (I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2), and deadly Spanish board games (OPEN GRAVES). Not even this sceptred isle is safe, not if you want to avoid turning into AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. In short, the world’s a dangerous place, particularly in the xenophobic realm of horror films. Which makes it all the more surprising that the educated protagonists of co-writer/director Zev Berman’s brutal torture chiller BORDERLAND are so eager to venture out into it. This time the destination in a grubby town on the Mexican border, and the threat a kidnapping cult of Satan worshippers. While it all sounds like the usual clichéd and intolerant hokum, it’s salvaged by some seriously tense scenes and an unrelentingly grim perspective.
Three friends, on the verge of leaving college for different schools, take a last trip together. They travel to Mexico, with the intention of spending the time taking drugs and getting laid. High on mushrooms, one of their number heads off on his own, and accepts a lift from an ostensibly kindly stranger. To his horror he soon realises he’s been abducted, and is informed by his captors that he’s to be used as part of a black magic ceremony...
We’ve talked more than once about the importance of creating likeable characters with whom an audience can empathise, especially when the narrative centres around said characters being in peril (which is every horror film ever). Since BORDERLAND was released in 2007, LaptopZombie probably can’t take the credit, but it’s certainly an argument with which Berman and co-writer Eric Poppen are familiar. While at least one of the central trio is infuriatingly arrogant and unpleasant, he grows on us, and most of the other characters also manage to elicit our sympathies. They’re relatively well-rounded for a horror film, and, despite their preoccupations with partying and having sex, are sufficiently nuanced to transcend their stereotypical trappings. It helps that the bad guys are very bad indeed; faceless gang goons who don’t bat an eyelid at the notion of graphic bodily dismemberment. There’s no attempt to humanise them, or to delve into the finer points of their unconventional belief system (not that lunatic devil worshippers generally invite such subtle scrutiny), but in this instance it works. And Berman’s careful to include plenty of heroic locals – from burned-out but still dedicated cops to plucky barmaid heroines – to even out the indigenous evil.
BORDERLAND’s story is the model of simplicity – American kids fall foul of Mexican cultists, and attempt to rescue their friend – but Berman orchestrates events at an agreeably snappy pace, with the action rarely allowed to sag. There are relatively few kills (the bloody denouement notwithstanding), but what few there are are unusually unsettling. I won’t spoil anything, but Berman goes out of his way to cultivate the idea that no one’s safe. He also generates a remarkable degree of tension, which he’s adept at sustaining for long periods. This, combined with the grubby, visceral aesthetic, creates a deeply ominous atmosphere.
BORDERLAND, therefore, is a particularly strong example of a particularly limited form. The ‘Americans abroad’ subgenre has been done to death, usually to distinctly lacklustre effect. At best xenophobic, at worst borderline racist, it relies on lazy stereotyping (of the ‘heroes’ as well as the villains), and usually entails a cast so ignorant and unpleasant we’re only too happy to see them meet a gruesome demise. Berman’s film manages to avoid most of these pitfalls, trading on sympathetic protagonists and a genuinely sinister bad guy. Clichés still abound, of course, but the disturbing atmosphere and protracted scenes of nail-biting tension make it an engaging watch.