Borderland Review

8 out of 10 Skulls
Written by: jmh314   

When you hear the phrase "based on a true events" in the horror world, you often wonder how much was actually "true".  Most often times it turns out only the slightest sliver of the film had anything to do with real life.  Sometimes a film comes along that takes an honest set of horrifying events and can turn it into a suspenseful horror story.  This is where Borderland, one of After Dark HorrorFest 2007's"8 Films to Die For", comes in.  While the whole plot isn't true, it is based of an actual murder that took place in 1989.  Director Zev Berman takes the main details from the disappearance and murder of a college student in 1989 and effectively turns it into a suspenseful horror/crime drama filled with plenty of bloody mayhem.

Borderlands opens with two Mexicans police officers invading a house.  They get inside only to find their killers gone and lots of sacrificial cult materials.  Suddenly the two officers are attacked and one is forced to watch the gruesome murder of his partner as part of a satanic "sacrifice".  He is kept alive so he can "tell everyone what he saw". 

Borderlands then skips to the story of three friends in Texas about to graduate college and move on to pursue further eduction/careers.  Before they are done they decide to take the short trek from their are of Texas to a small Mexican town just across the US/Mexican border.  It seems as though they want nothing more but to have one last weekend of drinking, drugs and sex before they move forward with their lives.

Upon arriving in Mexico, they three friends head to strip club to find some women.  Wild-man yet future lawyer Henry finds a prostitute for his friend Phil.  Phil is a virgin, so Henry feels he needs to help Phil along with getting off the island, if you know what I mean.  Phil leaves with the prostitute as Henry and their other friend Ed stay behind.  Ed ends up meeting a very attractive bartender whom he tries to defend from a big fellow harassing her.

We soon learn that Phil's night with the prostitute didn't go as Henry expected.  Turns out she had a baby girl who was in the same room and Phil ended up talking to and liking the prostitute to much.  His friends give him a hard time but Phil believes what he felt was real.  The three head out for a night of drugs and fun at a carnival with the bartender from the night before, Valeria, and her sister.  After winning a stuffed animal and because he felt like a 5th wheel, Phil leaves by himself to bring the stuffed dog to the prostitute he has come to like.

On the way to her house, Phil gets taken by a car full of crazy cult followers.  They lock him in some sort of barn where he is watched over by a cult-follower who's name is Randall and happens to be an American.  Phil soon learns from Randall that Phil is going to be part of a sacrifice and is really important to the process "Papa" is trying to complete.

While Phil is missing, Henry and Ed begin to worry when they can not find Phil anywhere the next day.  They go to the police who were no help and soon after find themselves being followed by Phil's kidnappers.  As Henry and Ed soon being to learn of the practices of a crazy cult from Valeria and her sister, the two soon realize their friend is in grave danger and they need to find him and help him.

Help comes from a Mexican man named Ulises who has been spying on "Papa" and his activities.  He is interested because he is the cop from the opening sequence who saw his partner get mutilated.  He asks if they have a friend who was taken, and when he describes Phil to them he tells them he is alive and he knows where he is.  Unfortunately time is short as it is the day of a full moon when the ritual must be completed.  Henry and Ed need to work together with Ulises to find their friend and stop Papa and his cult from doing the unthinkable to their friend.

The plot sounds something like Turistas or Hostel.  Friends in a foreign country end up getting abducted and tortured for some higher purpose.  However Borderland is more intense than either of those films and doesn't rely on just blood and guts to succeed.  Yeah the beginning and ending have plenty of blood to please the gorehounds, but the middle is what makes the film thrive.  It is driven by story and builds up the tension through gritty, realistic plot details.  Lets not forget the inspiration a murder case in 1989 where a real kid named Mark Kilroy who was found killed among dozens of skulls and spines of other victims of a satanic cult's worship in a Mexican bordertown.

The acting is superb and is one of the driving forces behind the intensity that this film creates.  Rider Strong plays the captive Phil and does a good mix of being the innocent boy yet freak out victim in this whole twisted plot. Brian Presley plays Ed who finds an unknown violent streak buried deep within when he learns more about his friends capture.  By far the stand out role was Randall who was played by the out-of-typecast Sean Astin.  This role is a long way from his memorable past characters Rudy or Sam as Astin performs a haunting and vicious cult follower stuck doing the dirty jobs.  He even adds some humor in with his madness as evident by the line "They always give em the shit jobs because I'm's discrimination" when he is in charge of undoing Phil's pants so he can use the bathroom.  It is almost unfathomable to see Astin in such an abrasive role but he succeeds in making his character reprehensible. 
There is no doubt in my mind how real director Zev Berman wanted this to story to feel.  While the chances of running into situations like these that we often see in movies is very very doubtful, the characters feelings and emotions drive the point home. Coming home I looked up the true events and found out that director Zev Berman lived in Mexico during the real murder in 1989 and was even questioned by Mexican authorities about it.  Berman's true life experience really helps give powerful and emotional direction to the film.

After the grisly torture and murder to start the film out I am sure many people were expecting another torture style horror film, I know I was.  But Borderlands turns into so much more as it develops after the initial gross out sequence.  It is a compelling true crime thriller that feels common at some points but then takes the viewer and spins them around before they get fully squeezed by the dark and distressing situations.  It pushes the story to the forefront and tries to make the viewer feel the pain and emotion of it's characters. 

It's not very often that a horror film tries to fill it's audience with raw emotions but Borderland succeeds because it is an unexpected way to experience the horror unfolding in front them.  I know this approach kept me on edge as I was expecting true horror around every corner.  It goes to show that some filmmakers may actually care about how their audience perceive its daunting story and arent just trying to "up the bar."  Now if only Zev Berman could convince some directors to do the same, then we may end up with more intensely chilling films like Borderland.
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