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I have a problem with the new genre of "torture porn" that has muscled
its way into the horror movie limelight with such movies as Hostel and
Touristas. It's sick, repugnant, and of virtually no redeeming value,
and yet, like a moth to a flame, I can't bring myself to not watch it,
even though I end up cursing myself for subjugating my mind to its
Such was the case when the 2007 edition of Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival scheduled a screening of Borderland. I found myself driving downtown muttering to myself how I was going to regret this. And truth be told, I almost did, except that the movie came packaged in a fully fleshed out story (pun intended) that had the added impact of having been based on a true story.
In 1989, Mexican police unearthed 12 bodies in the town of Matamoros. Their brains and spinal cords had been removed. It was later determined that a gang of drug smugglers had been practicing their own form of Santeria, a religious hybrid of Catholicism and African religions, similar to Voodoo. The leader of the gang, Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, was worshiped as a living god by his followers and practiced the ritual sacrifice of wayward individuals in the belief that the gods would make them invisible to the police as they went about their drug smuggling operation.
This is the backdrop that Borderland sets itself against as it tells the tale of a trio of Americans from Texas who head for a short stay in Mexico to indulge in some fast women and cheap booze. Along the way they hook up with a stunning and resourcefully independent Mexican barmaid played by Martha Higareda (soon to be seen alongside Keanu Reeves and Hugh Laurie in The Night Watchmen) and, as fate would have it, cross paths with members of the gang. The movie also delivers some truly twisted casting as Sean Austin of Lord of the Rings renown takes a villainous turn as the lone American member of the Santeria drug gang.
Director Zev Berman, for whom this movie marks only his third stint holding the directorial reigns, does a remarkably good job keeping the pacing tight and focused, blending a nice mix of story, action and (I hate to say it) gore, even though it's this latter part that I dearly wish could be toned down. The version I saw had not yet been rated by the MPAA so if there's any hope, the more unnecessarily gory parts of it will be excised before it gets given its cinematic release. While I'm no advocate of censorship, some of the gorier shots were just plain gratuitous. Berman would do well to re-cut the movie taking a cue from the original Saw (as opposed to the sequels), which illustrated just how gory you could make a movie while showing so little.
Still, Borderland plays out to a satisfying pay off, and never let my interest flag along the way, even if it did have me watching large chunks (pun intended, again) through my fingers, which, I suppose, is a good thing for some folks.
I attended the World Premiere of Borderland at the 2007 SXSW Film
Festival. The fact that this was in the midnight screenings section
should say a lot right off the bat. But what made this horror film so
horrifying is that it all really happened.
Borderland is based on the true story of ritual sacrifice killings conducted by a group of drug dealers in Mexico a few years back. The story centers around Phil, chillingly played by Rider Strong (Boy Meets World, Cabin Fever). Phil and two of his college buddies are spending some quality time just across the Mexican border before shipping off to grad school. Strong is one of those actors who, having started very young, has such a naturalistic acting style that his performance here was frightening on many levels.
The Q&A with director Zev Berman and cast members Rider Strong and Brian Presley ended close to 3 AM, about as long as any I can remember, and could have gone on all night. It was amazing how much of a stickler Berman was for being faithful to the story. It's hard to believe that some of the torture scenes really took place. But that's what makes it so gripping. It's one of the most gruesome films I've seen, and would be right up there with some of the most shocking horror/slasher/thrillers to come out lately, if not for the fact that it all really happened. There have been many films at recent festivals which have been very hard to watch, and this was no exception. It was an intense experience. But it absolutely has to be known going in that it is a true story, because otherwise some of the scenes would strain credulity.
I hope it can find an audience, because it might be too tough for the highbrow crowd yet not as darkly comedic as most slasher flicks are to satisfy the horror crowd. I did see one film similarly horrific this year, An American Crime at Sundance. It also plays out a shocking true story without pulling any punches. But Borderland is more "entertaining," if that makes sense, because there is at least a genre that it falls into neatly. Anyone who loves a good gory thriller will enjoy it. But once they are aware it all really happened, they will be chilled to the bone.
I went into Borderland not knowing what I would find there. Just the
subject matter suggested blood and gore. . .but how would it all pan
out? A slasher film? Supernatural horror? Crime drama? Well, not to
detract from the (very-well-done) slashing elements of the movie, and
the supernatural pretensions of some of its protagonists, it turned out
to be a very neat, beautifully realized crime thriller with a very
The film begins with a tension-filled scene that sets the stage for what is to come, as two Mexican cops investigate a sinister dark mansion in search of the mysterious Santillan. We don't know who he is at this point, only that his house bears testament to strange rites and animal sacrifices. When one of the cops discovers human remains among the animal ones, the action begins in earnest, and we learn very quickly that Santillan is not your average drug dealing psycho killer. No, his self-styled "religion", based on African Palo-Mayombe rites, involves ritual sacrifices of a particularly gruesome order, requiring not only blood, but abject terror, to appease the gods who then grant him favors to protect himself, his minions, and his drug trade.
Then the main story commences, as three recent college graduates from Texas decide to head across the border for a wild night or two of partying before going their separate ways. Through a seemingly random series of events, their lives collide with that of the cult/cartel, in unimaginably terrifying ways, and to no good end.
Dialogue was crisp and realistic throughout, as were all the settings. Acting was quite good, exceptional in some cases, and in some moments in particular. Brian Presley's final screen shots were excruciating depictions of a man turned against his own beliefs by brutal overriding experiences.
But all the acting was notable: Sean Astin acting against type as a brute and brutal follower of Santillan's camp; Martha Higareda as Brian Presley's love interest, and Rider Strong, whose descent into terror convinces every nerve of the horror of his experience. And as Santillan, Beto Cuevas exudes a silkily seductive but deeply sinister presence. In his portrayal, Santillan's overblown ego is always apparent (he believes himself to be invisible and invincible, a near-god himself, as long as he provides the sacrifices his bloodthirsty gods required). But most remarkable is his ability to convey what can only be described as compassionate cruelty. In one scene he tenderly caresses a chained victim who has been roughed up by one of the kidnappers, stating, blood-chillingly, "I don't believe in violence (pause) without a purpose." .
Zev Berman as co-writer and director exercises his trademark sensitivity to setting and tone, with clear and focused guidance and exquisite attention to detail. One episode that stood out for me took place in an amusement park, where four of the main characters ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms, a scene leading up to several pivotal moments in the story's development. It's always a challenge to depict experiences that are largely internal, even more so to do it convincingly. In this case, it was spot on. But that is just one example. Throughout, the slow buildup to the movie's climactic and hugely terrifying denouement is perfectly paced. And the camera work, dark and gritty, adds much to the overall feeling of impending horror.
I can't imagine why this movie did not receive a wider release. I hope, as a Variety reviewer said, that word of mouth will bring enough attention to it for blockbuster DVD sales. It deserves a great deal more than it is getting.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have seen every Afterdark Horrorfest film from the first and second
years running. While some of them are real stinkers, and some are not
bad, but forgettable, others, like Borderland, are really, truly
excellently done and overlooked, which brings me to how great this
movie manages to be and how surprisingly pleasing it is. I was not
expecting much to begin with, as I have that feeling going into every
Afterdark Horrorfest film, because I never know what I will get, and
the opening is really not that exciting, so I got a little
After awhile, after the movie spends enough time creating it's setting and theme that is, it picks up pace and by now you have gotten the concept and are beginning to become interested in how exciting and well done it is becoming. It is a little slow paced, considering that the first half is basically made up of showing how the three friends are wanting to have a good time by getting wasted until one of them is kidnapped to, later discovered, be used for a human sacrifice, so that might throw some people off.
The film has some points of really high interest however, and even though it is slow paced after a disheartening opening, it is nonetheless extremely entertaining throughout the remainder. The acting is really likable, if not wonderful acting it is tolerable, and the characters are manageable, and the story, while caught up in itself at times, is fun and thrilling. The movie just manages to entertain so well, that I could watch it again many times to come for how entertaining it is. It is a pretty basic film, with nothing new to add, but that does not matter when compared to how interesting and amusing it comes off as. At least, I thought it was amusing; highly amusing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In 1989, Mexican officials discovered the bodies of 12 people,
including a 21 year-old University of Texas student, buried on a
desolate ranch just outside of Matamoros, Mexico. The ranch, dubbed
Rancho Santa Elena, served as the killing grounds for a cult led by
Adolfo de Jesús Constanzo (nicknamed El Padrino de Matamoros, or The
Godfather of Matamoros). Constanzo was a practitioner of the African
magic, palo mayombe. The people buried on the ranch had been victims of
human sacrifice, which Constanzo and his followers believed would
secure occult protection for drug deals, shielding them from the
police. Various body parts and even the brains of their victims would
be mixed with dead animals in an iron cauldron called a nganga.
Borderland is based on these gruesome events, and while there are the typical liberties taken, the film sticks remarkably close to what really happened. Three college students from Texas head into a Mexican border town to celebrate spring break. Amidst drinking and picking up women, it isn't long before one of them is abducted for the cult's sinister practices, leaving the others to search for him. It's an understatement to say that they won't like what they find.
This is an outstanding film. I was looking forward to it well before After Dark added it to their lineup, so I was quite pleased when I saw that they had acquired the rights. The film has some beautiful visuals (loved the dreamy editing in the carnival scene) and cinematography, but in spite of this, it manages to pull off a very gritty, hopeless feel throughout. The characters aren't the usual annoying teens either. For instance, I liked how the tough guy wound up being anything but in the face of what he was up against. It felt real. I wound up feeling really sorry for these people. The sadistic torture of Phil (Rider Strong) made for an especially tough scene to watch, as I had grown to care about what happened to him and his friends. It affected me far more than any scene from a Saw movie could ever hope to. This cult meant business, and each demise had a brutality to it that really struck a chord.
As such, this is the rare film where I truly despised the villains and wanted to see them get severe comeuppance. I felt that the lone remaining cult member at the end, the one who lured Phil in, got off far too easily. Ed had him at his mercy, and I was hoping for some major pain to be dished out. Speaking of the cult, it was great seeing Sean Astin as a sadistic follower of Santillan. He nailed it, making me forget all about his countless goody-two-shoes characters from films past. I also have to mention Marco Bacuzzi, the man who does most of the group's dirty work. He is a vicious bastard with an intimidating look that has been compared to that of Michael Berryman. The comparison is apt, though I'd say he is even creepier since Berryman usually played bumbling types.
Bravo, After Dark. Continue saving these independents from obscurity for as long as you can. Some will be losers, but this one's a winner through and through.
In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have watched Borderland first out of the other 2007 horror fest titles I rented, because this film has set the bar pretty high. The plot concerns a trio of college friends who decide, before they each move on to different schools, to take a last minute trip over the border for some uninhibited debauchery. Things soon turn into a hellish nightmare when they become targets of a violent drug ring/cult. What keeps this from being another Hostel knock off is Borderlands realistic approach to the material (what makes the proceedings even more terrifying is that they are based on actual events). Also, I was impressed by the quality of the film making and especially the acting, which helps add to the realism (look for an actor you might remember from the Lord of the Rings in very convincing, un-hobbit like role). From the nerve shattering, horrific opening to the finale, Borderland is great horror film that gets under your skin. I highly recommend it to those with strong stomachs.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw this on the last night of our local Horrorfest 2007 and was both
duly horrified and impressed. To me this is an outstanding horror film
that could stand alongside Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and
Friday the 13th.
The tale provides a really delightfully horrifying mix of quasi-religious/satanist cultishness, sadistic gore, fun-loving college students plunged into terror, and nightmarish cross-cultural confusion.
The script was solidly scary; it delivers and delivers well. I really like the basic strategy: starting with a really nasty, brutal, scary torture scene, introducing the horrifyingly sadistic and creepy Gustavo; then for a fairly lengthy time we have this wonderful story full of indirection and feints and suggestiveness, including all kinds of cultural misdirection and confusion, during which I kept looking for a new horror along the lines of the initial scene of horror; and finally after this long fear-inducing build-up, we get an even more horrifying torture scene and a bloodbath to go along with it. To me this all works very, very well, and the script gets top props for this arrangement and for really solid scenes throughout. The script is even sprinkled with some really great lines: "The border has no memory." "I'll be back when I know what I'm doing."
The script was executed very convincingly. The acting was consistently solid. Brian Presley's Ed was excellent and convincing, and Jake Muxworthy gave us an excellent rendition of party-loving Henry. Valeria is attractively portrayed by Martha Higareda.
As for the cult and cult members, the script as executed gives the cult as such a strong "flavor" while giving us convincing portrayals of several very distinctively wicked members of the cult. The leader of the cult, Beto Cuevas' Santillan, was not for me nearly as salient as Marco Bacuzzi's Gustavo. Bacuzzi gives us a Gustavo who is to me so sadistic, so creepy, and so scene-dominating that I would really put him in the same pantheon of nasty horror characters as Jason and Michael Myers and Hannibal Lector.
The cinematography is consistently outstanding, and there are some really great visuals. I especially liked the scenes in the amusement park, and some of the indoor scenes: such as the early scene of a policeman looking down a blue corridor with a statue of the Virgin Mary in a niche in the wall behind him; and then another in which one of the female characters is climbing an indoor circular staircase. But really almost all of the scenes were really composed very effectively; and the gory scenes were as gory and creepy and scary as one could wish.
The only really big objection I had was to the sound, which was just horribly washed out, obscure, and sometimes almost non-existent, as in the case of several gunshots that sounded like pencils tapping on a table. I couldn't really believe that the movie's sound could be this bad, except that another audience member in my theater said he talked with theater staff, which did try to make adjustments of some kind, utterly unsuccessful.
And I'll admit that I'd much rather see Gustavo as the top cult-creep.
But all in all, this is a wonderful horror movie that deserves a lot wider recognition as such, IMHO.
This American/Mexican movie from the border between USA and Mexico is
loosely based on a true story, which is hard to accept. But evil
exists, and it's awful to get to know about it. And this is a story
difficult to see and comprehend.
Three young guys go down to Mexico one summer, where they experience that one of them disappears. One of them is kidnapped by humans believing in human sacrificing to the spirit Nganga. The cult leader is based upon The story of Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo! The so-called Godfather of Matamoros. They found more than fifty corpses where brains and spinal cords had been removed. Well, that's the true story, of a case which still isn't closed, as several members of the cult still is on the run.
The film is technically good, and well done in all aspects. The colors are gritty, made with color filters, like many Latin American film has been lately. In this film it's very suitable. Sometimes maybe a bit too much, as it is sometimes difficult to see clearly, outdoors in the sun. Indoors it's better.
The film is made terrifying, as it should be. many actors are doings terrific job. Maybe not so much Brian Presley and Jake MuxWorthy as Rudef Strong. But the Mexicans are doing great, and I always admire Damian Alcazar (amazing in 2004-film Chronicas/Chronicles). The crook Marco Bacuzzi is amazingly terrifying as a violent evil man. One of the scariest I've seen on film ever. The bad guys here are really disgusting all of them. Well played.
I find this a very good film, Though I don't like this kind of violence. I hate watching it, and definitely more do when it is a true story. This is of course it's not everyone's porridge. If you trouble with graphic films, this is no film for you. It's no constellation "this is just film", 'cause it isn't just. It is based on a true happening, found in the insanity of some human's religion. Embrace yourself.
"Based on true events" is rather ambiguous at best and I think if you
go into this film believing it's ALL true it will be quite an
experience, however I find that the story too well follows a classic
plot to be an entirely true story.
Three guys take a trip to Mexico that goes all wrong when they run into a cult of violent murderers. That's pretty much the gist of things.
The acting is actually rather decent and the story is well told and even believable to some degree and it kept my attention all the way through and proved to be one of the better films I've seen in this genre. I actually had to remind myself half way through that this was supposed to be a gore-filled horror film. There was nothing new in terms of blood, guts, and gore, and there really wasn't a whole lot of it given the length of the movie, but what's there gets the point across well.
Some people have referred to it as "goreporn" also which it really isn't. I'm glad at least some writers feel that gratuitous sex/nudity take away from a story when unnecessary.
Bottom line: If you go in expecting the same garbage this genre pumps out yearly, you'll be quite pleasantly surprised. If you go in expecting a masterpiece in horror theater, you'll likely be disappointed.
'Compact' is the word I'd use to describe Borderland. It doesn't offer
anything revolutionary which will blow your mind, but, if you're a fan
of the genre, you should find it satisfying.
It follows the (familiar) story of X good-looking young Americans, travelling to X and running into trouble in the form of X. Sometimes these packs of good-looking young Americans are girls, sometimes boys, other time a mixed group. Sometimes they travel to a remote town in America, sometimes a remote town in Europe. Once they get to where they're going, they run into trouble in the form of zombie/vampires/ghosts/rednecks/cannibals - choose your 'nasty.' In this instance, three lads travel to Mexico and get mixed up with... well, you'll have to watch it to find out.
Like I say, the story is pretty generic. I've seen plenty of these sorts of movies (you can probably tell by my cynical tone), but this one is pretty reasonable. The protagonists aren't (completely) unlikeable, don't do (too many) stupid things and you can basically root for their plight.
If you like this sort of film, give it a go. Trust me, there are many worse than this (and I've sat through almost every last one of them).
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