Thursday, August 16, 2012


Borderland (2007)
Dir. Zev Berman
Written: Zev Berman
Starring Brian Presley, Jake Muxworthy, Rider Strong, Damian Alcazar, and Sean Astin

    BORDERLAND is a film from the second “8 Films to Die For” series, a collection of independent horror films which initially generated quite a bit of excitement amongst horror fans until they realized that oh yeah, most independent horror films are just as shitty as conventional studio ones, and they look cheaper. It’s very loosely based on the real Mexican drug dealer/ cult leader Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo. It has reasonably decent acting for a horror movie, a capable production design, a nice-looking poster, a good horror premise, and it’s not very good. It’s a bit of a bummer to have to say that, since I feel like writer/director Berman was genuinely trying to make something decent. There’s a distinct flavor of ambition here, and a manifestly committed attempt to make a serious, disturbing horror film. But the end result is a listless, cliche-ridden mess, failing to even scratch the surface of a premise that should have been an easy one. I’m hoping that by exploring what went wrong here, we can prevent future directors from falling into the same trap.

    Here’s the premise: Three recent college grads decide to cross the Texas border into Mexico, the theory being that lack of law enforcement in the area makes it easier to casually do drugs, fuck prostitutes, and generally be ugly Americans. We run into problems almost immediately, because these are those Platinum Dune Michael Bay horror movie actors who are obviously way too pretty for us to buy as real humans. Let me let you in on a little secret, future filmmakers. Allowing a day of fastidiously manicured beard growth is not going to trick us into thinking these hunky thirtysomethings are normal schlubby college kids, just like you and I. It’s the male version of those glasses insanely gorgeous girls in romantic comedies wear in a lame concession towards resembling a real human being. Not buying.

    This might be possible to overlook, if never exactly forgive, had we started killing them quickly and in imaginative ways. But instead, we spend almost an hour with these douchey nonentities, wasting valuable killing time and not learning squat about our antagonists. The “innocent religious guy” of the three gets kidnapped early on, and his two friends basically just fuck around trying to get someone to pay attention to them for nearly a full hour. Meanwhile, Jesus-boy is tied up, listening to Sean Astin unconvincingly try to imitate a scary cult enforcer.*

Ooh, scary. Rudy's got a dark side.

    There IS a way to do this kind of thing, of course. Make it a kind of spooky, paranoid thriller which slowly ratchets up the tension as our boys find themselves increasingly alone and obviously outmatched in a foreign place, at the mercy of maniacs they cannot understand. It would be an implied kind of horror, a horror by suggestion. That’s the movie I think they were hoping to make. But instead they made a low-rent psycho killer flick in which almost nothing happens for 90% of the running time. Not a good move. It’s too cliche to pass for real people in a real world, but way too literal to achieve any kind of surreal horror. The characters are too stock to pretend they’re interesting, but too earnestly acted to work as campy killer fodder. So the whole film just sort of sits there, furtively checking in on its characters as they do nothing embarrassingly bad but nothing especially compelling either.

    And there’s your problem. If you or a loved one is considering making a horror movie in the near future, begin by asking yourself this superficially simple but fundamentally important question: where is the tension coming from? If you fail to lock down that simple plot mechanic, you’re gonna have the same problem they have here, which is that it’s ultimately not really coming from anywhere but the basic concept. There’s no narrative tension at all. Our two heroes spend most of their time wandering around Mexico trying to find people to help them out. A good idea in real life, but it makes the script feel almost like a police anti-procedural. More about the details of the way they try to approach the problem, rather than the problem itself. Again, you could do it this way, but it would be hard to find much horror here, and even so you’d have to make the details themselves waaaay more interesting.**

This will teach you to shake the damn camera around so much.
You also might have been able to milk the ticking-time-bomb angle, since their friend is kidnapped early on and the sooner they get to him, presumably, the more likely he’ll survive. But of course, there’s never any clear timeframe or much measure of progress from either the protagonists or the antagonists. Sean Astin seems to just kind of killing time until his boss can pencil in a moment to ritually sacrifice this simpering hick to his African Voodoo Spirit. Without a clear sense of how much time remains, this possible means of evoking tension is rendered moot. Like all these tortureporn movies, it’s sort of grim to watch this poor kid sweat it out, but it’s not particularly tense, since there’s obviously nothing he can do to save himself. Just unpleasant.

Then you might have been able to work the paranoia and overwhelming force angle. This is the one area that the film is able to fitfully cull some interest out of. In its single somewhat arresting scene, one of our heroes --left alone in a hotel-- suddenly finds himself under siege from all directions by an army of faceless, machete-wielding attackers. Since Casey Ryback is not available, this scene works up some solidly nightmarish oh-god-they’re-after-me panic, even if it’s pretty much cribbed directly from ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. This scene works because it suddenly expands the scope of the conspiracy against them, depicts a clear danger, a clear reaction to that danger, and a clear goal for our protagonists to struggle towards. Both the stakes and the action are clearly articulated, so you have something to actually get invested in. Plus, it takes a break from the movie’s tiresome customary literalness and bathes the whole thing in weird green and orange light which has no obvious source but definitely ups the nightmare quality of everything. Had the film taken this escalation to heart and built on it, we might have something that starts slowly but ends well. Sadly, this is not the case: despite this sequence where dozens if not hundreds of cultists swarm a hotel to kill one single dude who is hardly even related to their plot, they never show up again. When we get to the villain’s lair at the end, there’s maybe two dozen people working there, and they run for the hills at the sight of a gun. Weak sauce.

Which finally brings us to the last area we might have been able to milk some tension from: the disturbing nature of the true story they’re ripping off. This should have been the easy part. The ever-colorful murderpedia entry on Constanzo reveals a wild story of drugs, bisexual lovers, murderous gangs, drug-dealing priests, madness, and voodoo. How disappointing that the film seems almost entirely uninterested in most of this, instead favoring a an approach which focuses on his footsoldier thugs. Armies, as a rule, aren’t very scary. I mean, does S.P.E.C.T.R.E’s gang of jumpsuited gunmen really strike terror into anyone’s heart? You’re just not gonna get that personal creepy touch you get from a single murderous psychopath acting on his (or her) own twisted internal logic. Gangs are just a very bland, superficial threat. If we’re gonna get a horror film out of this, we’re gonna need something a bit more deviant.

Man, Rico Suave has fallen on hard times.

Alas, it is not to be. When we do finally get to meet our Constanzo stand-in (here named Santillian for what I assume are legal reasons), he’s a disappointing Andy Garcia wannabe (although with some cool tattoos) who unimaginatively sacrifices a guy by hanging him by his feet and slicing his neck. You call that disturbing? SAVAGES also has a gang of Mexican drug-dealers murdering people, but it manages to be about a hundred times more creatively depraved, without ever bringing up Satanic Sacrifice. This Santillian guy just isn’t cutting it, no pun intended. Where are the gory, lurid details? Where are the freaks? Does everything have to be so brightly lit? And most importantly, this is a drugged-up bisexual murderous voodoo maniac? He’s smarmy and unpleasant, to be sure, but you never get the sense of a truly unhinged mind. He’s more Gordon Gekko than Patrick Bateman.  To make matters worse, seemingly everything is staged and shot to look as mundane and pedestrian as possible, and then made worse by a wobbling shaky-cam, a lack of clear geography of the location, a lack of clear threat, and a weird double-climax where a handful of cultists follow our surviving heroes back home and are dispatched with violence. When they try to play off Sean Astin as the final villain, you know they’re out of good ideas.

So sorry guys, no luck on this one. It strikes me as another one of those unfortunate cases where nerds are trying to shock you, but lack the imagination to come up with someone really transgressive. Combined with douchey, humorless and cliched characters, a unfocused plot, infuriating shaky-cam, and a utter failure to capitalize on a decent horror scenario, and that pretty well sinks the ship. It’s a tedious and joyless affair, but at least it makes a good candidate for autopsy. Independent filmmakers of the future, take heed: horror films are about more than convincing machete kills and claims of true-life serial killers. They’re a chance to construct something which makes use of the best cinema has offer, combining stories and images which play off our subconscious and instinctual fears. You don’t need a lot of money to do it. But you do need to get the fundamentals right, particularly if you’re trying for a serious, grim tone like this one is. You got to want to do more than tell a tale, you got to want to get into our heads. And to do that, you have to think about what really goes on in there. Like George Carlin says of the blues,

“its not enough to know which notes to play, you gotta know why they need to be played.”

*Casting against type can sometimes work nicely in movies like this, but I think people have an unrealistically high opinion of how often it actually comes across as anything more than a distracting gimmick. I mean, it worked for Elijah Wood in SIN CITY, but fuck dude, what's next, are we gonna see the guy who played Pippin play a junkie pimp in a blaxploitation throwback? Astin is fine in this, but come on, he's just not scary. It doesn't help that he's playing a completely vacant thug character in a movie which is resolutely unscary at every turn, but I can't help thinking that another actor could have made this character seem more like a real threat and less like an unpleasant stoner. 

**It probably goes without saying that it also completely wastes its somewhat unique setting on the lawless border between Texas and Mexico, using it as a plot device instead of a chance to get some interesting diversity and local color into its standard horror premise.

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