Lionsgate // 2007 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // March 18th, 2008
Your jails can't hold us. And your bullets can't hurt us.
In 1989, an American college student who'd gone with friends to a Mexican border town vanished. It was later discovered that he had been abducted by a cult and murdered as a ritual sacrifice. The cultists were drug dealers, and their leader had convinced them that human sacrifices made them invulnerable. The student was not the first victim of the cult, but he was the most prominent. Most other victims were peasants or members of drug rings, and the police found these disappearances to be of little consequence.
Borderland uses this incident as the basis of its story, moving it to present day and telling it from the perspective of the victim and his friends.
Three friends are looking for one last blowout before heading off to graduate school. Henry (Jake Muxworthy, Waterborne) is stoked about going to Wharton for his MBA, while Phil (Rider Strong, Cabin Fever) is settling for a second-rate law school. Ed (Brian Presley, Home of the Brave) is due to go to Stanford, but he's conflicted.
They head over the Mexican border for a little drinking, drugging, and debauching. They hook up with a bartender, Valeria (Martha Higareda, Casa de los babys), who is new in the area but has relatives there and knows her way around.
When one of the guys decides to stumble back to the hotel after a night of partying, he is kidnapped and taken to a ranch. There, he meets another American (Sean Astin, 50 First Dates), one of his captors, who talks wildly about magic and spirits but will not tell the boy why he's been taken there.
When he fails to show up, his friends become worried and go to the police, who offer no help. So, with Valeria's assistance, they start asking around, and slowly learn that these kidnappings are not uncommon and are tied to a cult run by a drug dealer, Santillan (Beto Cuevas). Santillan and his followers worship spirits and make blood offerings to ensure protection from the police and other mortals.
The cultists are ruthless -- they believe they can move about unseen and that bullets cannot harm them. The locals, including the police, are terrified of them.
And now that the Americans are asking questions, it's not only their kidnapped friend who is in danger.
Borderland is a gut-wrenching experience. While it contains scenes as gruesome as anything in the Hostel family, it is closer in spirit to a true-crime story such as In Cold Blood than to a torturesploitation film. The violence in Borderland propels the story without becoming the story.
The film opens with a graphic and horrifying torture murder. There are two victims: One watches as the other is dismembered, alive, the body parts to be used later in a ritual. The one who witnesses this is allowed to live and told to take the story back as a warning to others who try to interfere with Santillan's cult.
There is nothing random or titillating about this killing. The calculated cruelty makes it difficult to watch, and it hangs over everything that comes after.
What immediately follows is a fairly long sequence in which we get to know the characters, and we follow them on their south-of-the-border adventure. With the startling opening still on our minds, we see dangers that the characters don't, and even the "sunnier" moments are edged with suspense. When a cult member from that first scene suddenly turns up while the guys are partying, it's jolting.
The roles are well-cast, and the interplay among the actors playing the boys is far more believable than in a typical "horror" film. Writer/Director Zev Berman gives them enough back story and traits to develop fleshed-out characterizations, making their fates far more affecting and horrific.
In addition to the leads, Berman gets great work from Sean Astin as a dim but deranged American cult member and Mexican actor Marco Bacuzzi, who's as terrifying as any movie monster as the cult's sadistic strong man.
Berman seems to have gone out of his way not to make this an exploitation movie, which in lesser hands it could have easily become. This is not a film of quick cuts with a techno score, naked girls being menaced by maniacs, or cardboard characters being picked off one by one. Berman allows his scenes to play out, and the slow build creates a high level of suspense and allows us to connect with the characters and events.
Lionsgate gives Borderland a top-notch release as part of its After Dark Horrorfest series. The transfer offers a fine representation of Scott Kevan's remarkable lighting and camera work. Audio is all right, though dialogue occasionally competes with background music.
We get some terrific extras. First up is a commentary track with Berman, Presley, Kevan, and Producer Lauren Moews. Berman is front and center here, and he is a very articulate man who also does well facilitating the input of the others. One of his comments would have been better left unsaid: During a scene in which a cult member is videotaping one of the main characters being excruciatingly tortured, Berman likens it to "Soldiers in Iraq documenting their own atrocities." Borderland is a well-made and powerful film, and the director's attempt to ratchet-up its relevance with such an ignorant comment is, at best, unfortunate.
"Rituals de Sangre" is a terrific half-hour documentary on the case that inspired Borderland. This featurette is narrated by one of the police officers who had been in charge of the investigation and includes some grisly footage of bodies being dug up. It's worth noting that none of the features ever names the young man who was killed in 1989. I don't know if this is for legal purposes or out of respect for the family, but in case it's the latter, I'm following suit and not naming him here.
"Inside Zev's Head" features Berman commenting on various points in the production and includes some photos he took as well as behind-the-scenes footage. The director's insights make this better than the average "making of" featurette. We also get "Webisodes" of the Miss Horrorfest Contest. I didn't know such a thing was even happening.
This is one seriously grim movie, made all the more so because it is based, rather faithfully, on actual events. If you're looking for a good, old-fashioned scare-fest or a more contemporary gore-fest, look elsewhere. This is most definitely not a "feel-good" movie, and it's too well-made to allow for any kind of comfortable detachment.
Borderland is a disturbing and provocative film. Dark, suspenseful, and affecting, it is not for the weak-of-heart -- or stomach. Props to Lionsgate for a great release.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary with Director Zev Berman, Actor Brian Presley, Director of Photography Scott Kevan, and Producer Lauren Moews
* "Rituals de Sangre"--The True Story Behind the Cult Murder Investigation
* "Inside Zev's Head: A Filmmaker's Diary"
* Miss Horrorfest Contest Webisodes
* After Dark Horrorfest