Review: Borderland [2007]

Dir. Zev Berman

Cast: Brian Presley, Rider Strong, Jake Muxworthy, Beto Cuevas, Martha Higareda

I have a dilemma with the genre of so-called "torture porn" that has muscled its devious way into the horror movie limelight in recent years, my primary concern is that countless movies are bypassed or just rejected due to this catch-all tag. Such movies as Hostel and Touristas are essentially nauseous, inelegant, and of virtually no redeeming cinematic value, whereas films like Martyrs, Saw, and now, Borderland, albeit sharing similarities to the former in tone, brutality and grittiness, have much more depth of story and cogency of execution to just be demeaned by a hip epithet.

In 1989, Mexican and Texan police unearthed 12 bodies in the grounds of a ranch just east of the border town of Matamoros. Their brains and spinal cords had been excised, and it was only later ascertained that a gang of drug smugglers had been using the dark magic of Palo Myombe, a religious amalgam of Catholicism and African voodoo, similar to Santeria. The leader of the gang, Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, was revered as a living god by his followers and exercised the ritualistic sacrifice of arbitrary individuals in the belief that the gods would make them invulnerable to the police as they went about their drug smuggling activity.

This factual case is the inspiration for Borderland, as it sets out to chronicle the saga of a trio of young  pre-collegiate Texans - Ed (Presley), Henry (Muxworthy), and Phil (Strong) - heading down to Mexico for a weekend of wine, women and very little song. The boys eventually encounter tenacious, local barkeep Valeria (Higareda) and procede to have themselves a purposeful measure of drug addled R&R. Unfortunately Phil elects to head hotelward early and finds himself snared by the acolytes of a satanista drug lord who surmises a 'gringo' sacrifice will invoke the powers of darkness to protect himself and his mob of not-so-merry outlaws. Now, Ed and Henry must locate their amigo, but in a town where even the police are intimidated by this cult, who can they turn to for aid?

Uncustomarily for a low budget horror/thriller, the storyline proves to be one of the films strongest factors, and while it follows a prosaic blueprint of character gets in trouble, friends rally round to help, combating bad guys enroute to emancipation, it's the way that Eric Poppen and Zev Berman have composed it in such a way that permits the viewer to positively relate with the characters, meaning for once, the protagonists are not the customary disposable victims. The acting is both naturalistic and emotionally driven, from the ardent chemistry that Brian Presley and Martha Higareda have together on screen through to Muxworthy's phenomenal performance as Henry, the fresh cast demonstrate both artfulness and finesse in their technique. Berman's casting of veteran Mexican actor Damián Alcázar as Ulises, a detective who is seeking to avenge his partners death, is inspired, his performance ascribes gravitas to the production and conducts a level of believability annoyingly deficient in the majority of modern genre characterisations. Marco Bacuzzi, who plays the sinister 'first officer' of the cult, warrants a special mention for managing to constrain his performance so masterfully in the face of such an indubitably ferocious character.

Director Zev Berman, for whom this movie marks only his third stint commanding the directorial controls, does a commendable job keeping the pacing taut and concentrated, fusing a first-class amalgam of story, action and authentically harrowing blood-letting. The grittiness of the locations are matched elegantly by the desaturated, yet warm, graininess of the post production grading, ascribing the whole film a 'South of the Border' Chainsaw Massacre look. Berman's use of close cropping and fluid steadicam work are reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi trilogy, tied with astute camera angles that give the illusion of 'cinema verite', thus helping to embellish the 'based on true events' feel to the story.The characters give this movie profundity and sense, while the plot slowly leads into the inexorability of a final opulent confrontation of good versus pure evil, a battle that is reminiscent of numerous old-school spaghetti westerns.

Verdict: If you are expecting the usual 'torture-porn' garbage, walk away, this is a slick, violent and intelligent crime thriller of the highest order.

Borderland is released in the UK on DVD by Momentum Pictures on February 15th 2010

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