Cults in Horror Movies: “Borderland” (2007) and the Occult
Borderland (2007) is an indie crime thriller feature with horror elements. Although it’s not a pure horror film, it still generates a horror reaction in its viewers. The film’s Mexican drug-cartel-member antagonists justify their cruel and gruesome treatment of others with a system of occult beliefs. So we have here another film that uses a cult as the basis for its horror. But how well Borderland uses this device is another question, as the movie takes a materialistic and realistic view of its world. As a result, it treats the supernatural as mythic and ineffectual.
The opening credits of the film claim with veracity that its story is “inspired by true events.” Director Zev Berman and his writing partner Eric Poppen based their story on the real-life kidnapping and murder of an American student by Mexican “narco-Satanists.”
According to the New York Daily News, the victim was University of Texas – Austin undergrad Mark Kilroy. In 1989, Kilroy and three friends went to Matamoros (across the border from Brownsville, TX) for Spring Break. After he had become separated from his buddies, Kilroy ran afoul of members of an occult drug gang known as “Los Narco-satanicos,” who abducted him. Cult leader Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo (known as “El Padrino [Godfather] de Matamoros”) subsequently murdered Kilroy in a human-sacrifice ritual.
This history forms the basis of Berman and Poppen’s screenplay. Real-life “Padrino” Constanzo becomes Santillan (Beto Cuevas), a.k.a. “Papa.” Berman and Poppen introduce Santillan’s cult in a cold-open teaser scene. Police detective Ulises (Damian Alcazar) and his partner search a Mexico City gang house for evidence. Two of Santillan’s lieutenants, Gustavo (Marco Bacuzzi) and Luis (Roberto Sosa), capture them. After crippling Ulises, they force him to watch as they torture and kill his partner. Gustavo and Luis gouge out the younger cop’s eyes because “Papa wants a cop’s eyes for his Nganga,” an occult altar located at the cult’s rural hideout near the border. They let Ulises live so he can tell the police who did this.
One year later, three recent college grads celebrate their graduation at a bonfire party on the beaches of Galveston, Texas. Henry (Jake Muxworthy) is a headstrong, narcissistic, arch-conservative who plans to go to Wharton for an M.B.A. and then become filthy rich. Phil (Rider Strong) is a preacher’s son who’s going to U.T. Austin for law school. The strong yet sensitive Ed (Brian Presley) has unspecific plans for graduate studies at Stanford.
Henry and Phil decide to drive to Mexico for some debauchery in the strip clubs of fictional border town Manzanita (a stand-in for Matamoros). Henry yearns for hedonistic freedom, while Phil plans to lose his virginity. At first, Ed (who seems preoccupied with his thoughts) doesn’t want to go. He gives in after it becomes apparent that his friends won’t take “no” for an answer.
At first, things go almost as planned. Phil falls in love with a 17-year-old, single-parent hooker, instead of having sex with her. Ed meets and starts hanging out with Valeria (Martha Higareda), a strip club bartender. Hallucinating on ‘shrooms and stoned on weed, Ed and Valeria go to a local carnival with Henry and Valeria’s roommate and cousin Lupe (Francesca Guillen).
Phil tags along, but starts “feeling like a fifth wheel.” He decides to walk to his prostitute girlfriend’s apartment to give her baby a teddy bear he won at the carnival. Although Ed and Henry question this decision, they let him go even though he’s higher than a kite.
On his way, Phil’s tricked into accepting a ride from Santillan’s henchmen and becomes their prisoner. They take him to the cult’s nearby rural hideout, where Randall (Sean Astin), an American psychopath who’s now a disciple of “Papa,” keeps him chained in a shack. Thus Phil becomes the fictional version of the real-life Mark Kilroy.
When Phil doesn’t return to their hotel room, Ed and Henry begin increasingly frantic efforts to find him. The Mexican police are not helpful. The Americans’ attempts to locate Phil on their own ultimately result in violence against them by gang members. Then they run into Ulises. He’s now an ex-cop who is shunned by his former colleagues in the police because of his obsession with bringing Santillan to justice.
Ulises has had the gang under surveillance. The police won’t help him, despite the stacks of evidence that he’s accumulated. The reason why, as local police Captain Ramirez (Tomás Goros) tells him, could serve as the theme of the film:
“This isn’t Mexico City. It isn’t even Mexico. This is the border. The border has no memory. Remembering here gets you killed.”
When Ulises learns that Santillan plans to sacrifice Phil in an occult ritual, he plots a rescue attempt with Ed and Valeria. Will they succeed, or will Santillan add them (along with Phil) to his growing list of sacrificial victims?
True to its title, this film takes its audience to a “borderland.” It’s an area of relative lawlessness between two sovereign nations. It is also a borderland in a supernatural way. After entering it, the three young American men encounter the threshold of the realm of the demonic.
Still, as “gringos” they are skeptical of the occult. They don’t take the beliefs of the locals seriously, even when they observe a protest march by those whose relatives vanished as a result of Santillan’s cult’s rituals. Even the police are wary of interfering with his activities.
Santillan and his gang believe that “Los Espiritus” grant them protection from the police in exchange for human sacrifices. The film itself, like its three American protagonists, does not give any credence to this belief. It doesn’t show any supernatural or paranormal results from Santillan’s cult’s rituals. Instead, it depicts the narco-cultists as deluded (albeit dangerously so) by a false spirituality.
Thus, the film cannot create horror based on supernaturally-mediated events. Instead, it relies solely on the evil behavior of the cultists towards other people. Perhaps this choice was the result of the writers’ decision to stay close to their source material. Still, it is a weakness because it limits the film to a standard plot in which the “good guys” must try to rescue one of their number from the clutches of the “bad guys.” Although this scenario works well in a film like Bone Tomahawk (2015) — in part due to the unique nature of its “bad guys” — it falls short here.
One reason is the flatness of the protagonists. Their stereotypical nature does not leave the principal cast much room to flesh them out and make them more believable. Ed, Henry, and Phil are stock versions of privileged, young, white American men. Valeria is a tough bartender at a strip club; even so, she has a heart of gold. This is a female character straight out of Hollywood’s Central Casting. Finally, Ulises is the cliched ex-detective who can’t let go of the one case that he never solved.
By comparison, Bone Tomahawk (see my review) develops its stock Western characters, giving them a roundness that allows its outstanding cast to mold them into interesting and believable people. This achievement points out another problem with Borderland. Its cast (particularly the American members) is just not that good.
Fortunately, the believability of Santillan and his cult followers makes up for some of these problems. This is the case despite several plot holes. For example, the cult seems to be able to identify and track down Phil’s friends with ease, even before they know who his friends are (and before his friends start looking for him). This would be believable if the film allowed them to use real demonic powers, but it doesn’t. Likewise, Ulises appears almost out of nowhere, like a deus ex machina, to provide aid to Ed, Henry, and Valeria exactly when they need it. There are no explanations for how he finds out about their predicament and how he locates them. These holes could have arisen during post-production if editors cut scenes that provide the necessary story connections. But they are still noticeable flaws in the finished film.
Although Borderland is an entertaining movie, it’s not one of the better examples in our Loud Green Bird series on cults in horror. Its refusal to develop its story’s occult themes (by taking them seriously) removes a powerful source of horror. Instead, it goes down the path of the crime thriller, likely due to a decision to adhere closely to its real-life source material. In so doing, however, it relies on stock protagonists instead of developing them into more rounded characters. As a result, the audience cares less about them than it should and is less caught up in their predicament than it could be.
[SPOILER ALERT] One final thought: Borderland depicts Americans as rational, scientific, and materialistic, while its Mexicans are emotional, superstitious, and spiritual. The Americans rely solely on intelligence and physical force, while the Mexicans also consult and request the aid of the spiritual world. Given that the Americans win in the end, is this film essentially a jingoistic, ethnocentric monument to the supposed superiority of secular American culture? Given that it was made during the waning years of the George W. Bush administration, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Frisco Kid’s IMDb Rating: 4 out of 10 stars