Poor Agnes Ayres! All her films are now totally forgotten except for "The Sheik", in which she gave an excellent performance ... which is also forgotten, because people only watch this film to see Valentino's performance in the title role. In "Borderland", Ayres gives two different performances (or, arguably, three), but she utterly fails to make any sort of impression.
"Borderland" is a ghost story that doesn't try to be spooky. It tries to make some serious statements about the relationship between the living and the dead, the present and the past, which reminded me of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town". Unfortunately, "Borderland" hasn't got one-tenth of one percent of the power or poetic beauty of "Our Town".
"Borderland" starts, intriguingly enough, in the afterworld ... which (in this movie) looks like a very dull, boring place. Apparently this is neither Heaven nor Hell, but rather some sort of Limbo ... a borderland for deceased souls who have unfinished business on Earth. Ayres plays the bodiless spirit of Dora Beckett, who died seventy years ago. Now she urgently wants to return to the land of the living, in order to perform an urgent mission. (We don't know what this is yet.) It's not very clear who's running the afterworld, but one of the something-or-others in charge of this place tries to warn Dora (with some very long intertitles) of the consequences of returning to the living world: she will be forced to experience hunger, cold, pain, and all the other perils of the flesh. Considering that there's absolutely nothing at all going on in this eternal afterworld (except those long intertitles), some hunger and pain might be very welcome indeed. In a sequence worthy of Ed Wood Jnr, we see irrelevant stock footage of blizzards and floods and forest fires as the ghostly Dora makes her way back into the living realm.
The action shifts to our own modern-day world, circa 1922. Edith Wayne (also played by Ayres) is a modern young woman in a well-to-do household. She has a husband (Milton Sills) and a sweet little golden-haired daughter. She also has a lover on the side (played by Bertram Grassby), and she's planning to abandon her family and run away with him. Also present in this merry ensemble is Eileen, an incredibly ancient maidservant who has been with the Wayne family for several generations, and who is now blind and paralytic and nearly comatose.
Suddenly, Eileen sits up and speaks. Her body has been possessed by the spirit of Dora. (It's not clear why Dora's ghost has taken over this incredibly frail body instead of one of the much healthier bodies on offer hereabouts.) Instead of introducing herself properly and relaying an important message from the afterworld through Eileen's voice and body, Dora now pretends to *BE* Eileen ... and she proceeds to relay her urgent message in the form of a long, boring flashback.
Seventy years ago (about 1850, I guess; the costumes make it hard to tell for certain), Dora Beckett had a husband and a sweet little golden-haired son. (Do you see where this is heading?) She also had a lover on the side (played by Casson Ferguson, a graduate of the Snidely Whiplash Dramatic Academy). She abandoned her husband and her child to run away with her lover Snidely, only to learn that her house burnt down and her golden-haired little boy died. (Hurrah!) To atone for her sins, she died of grief ... and she has spent the past seventy years in limbo. Now it transpires that Edith Wayne is Dora Beckett's great-grand-niece, and Dora must urgently prevent Edith from repeating Dora's mistake. (Oh, go ahead, Edith!)
Now it gets really stupid. The maidservant Eileen, who is an incredibly ancient paralytic in the Wayne household in present-day 1922, was also a maidservant in the Beckett house way back in 1850, when she was much younger and known as Elly. In other words, Eileen/Elly knew the whole story all along, and could have warned Edith by herself, with no supernatural intervention, if only she were in healthier condition.
This whole movie is gobsmackingly annoying. It seems to tell us that we're doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. It also says that there IS an eternal life after death, but the place is so boring we'd never want to go there. Everything is made to seem so pointless, on both sides of the grave.
The acting in this movie is almost uniformly bad, with lots of grimacing and winking and arching eyebrows. There are very few movies I would rate as low as Zero, but "Borderland" is one of them.
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