It's tempting to write off anthology projects like "After Dark Horrorfest (alternatively known as 8 Films to Die For)" as little more than lurid cash grabs, aimed at the lowest common denominator. Granted, After Dark Films, the company that distributed the inaugural 2006 slate of films and last year's cinematic octet, certainly doesn't shy away from playing up the gruesome, grindhouse aspects of each film ("Too graphic for general audiences!") but in reading reviews of various entries in the "Horrorfest" canon, it seems that quality varies greatly from project to project.
While not yet a guarantee of worthwhile horror filmmaking, "After Dark Horrorfest" could evolve into a trustworthy imprint. Borderland is certainly indicative of what the future could hold; it's a gripping, grim thrill ride with its roots in reality (allegedly) and a welcome penchant for never dumbing down its narrative for the sake of simple splatter.
Purportedly based on the harrowing true story of murderous Mexican cult leader Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, (who died in 1989) and the ritualistic 1989 death of college student Mark Kilroy, Borderland follows a horny, headstrong trio of high school pals -- Eddie (Brian Presley), Henry (Jake Muxworthy) and Phil (Cabin Fever's Rider Strong) -- as they ditch the mundane Spring Break environs of Galveston, Texas and head south to get in trouble down old Mexico way, specifically in the town of Manzanita.
Things go really wrong really fast, as an innocent night at a local carnival (complete with recreational drug use and passionate sex) spirals out of control, culminating in Phil's disappearance and the introduction of murderous torture. Director/co-writer Zev Berman (who penned the screenplay with Eric Poppen) clearly takes some cues from Eli Roth's take-no-prisoners Hostel series, but also infuses the nerve-rattling tale with some exotic Central American flavors.
While the nightmarish torture sequences (including the genuinely startling opening moments) pack a definite punch, some of the film's effectiveness is lost whenever the main characters begin pontificating about life or shackled to windy exposition. It's not stupid, necessarily, but rather empty. Hiccups aside, the cast is fairly effective, particularly a rough-looking Sean Astin (far afield from the land of hobbits) who sinks his teeth into the role of the mysterious, menacing Randall.
Borderland is a bit unbalanced -- after starting strong, it doesn't really regain momentum until the final 40 minutes or so -- but when it works, this low-budget white-knuckler is an effective bit of blood-soaked mayhem. Even if the tale has no basis in reality, it's still a gruesome, taut story that's mostly smart without sacrificing shocks. A note: This "unrated director's cut" is just one minute longer (105 minutes versus 104 minutes) than the theatrical release. While it's hard to know exactly what's changed, a safe bet would be more explicit gore.
Borderland is presented in a fine-looking 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that retains a bit of filmic grain, while remaining sharp and clear. Much of the film transpires in dimly lit spaces or at night, but cinematographer Scott Kevan's work never turns mushy or washed out. Overall, a clean, vivid visual presentation.
Lots of atmosphere and source music (oh, and blood-curdling screams) make up the soundtrack, so the Dolby Digital 5.1 track has plenty to do. During the sequences transpiring entirely in Spanish, forced English subtitles appear, but otherwise, all of the dialogue is heard clearly, without distortion or drop-out. An optional Dolby 2.0 track is on board as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Director/co-writer Berman, actor Brian Presley, cinematographer Kevan and producer Lauren Moews sit for a commentary track -- relaxed, informative and dusted with just a touch of cinematic hubris (Berman tends to dominate the conversation). The 20 minute, 40 second featurette "Inside Zev's Head: Reflections on Borderland" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) profiles the film's director and also touches on the project's origins. The 28 minute, 45 second mini-doc "Rituales de Sangre: The True Story Behind the Matamoros Cult Killings" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) explores the film's basis in reality, while six "webisodes" for the "Miss Horrorfest Contest" (presented in fullscreen) are playable separately or all together for an aggregate of 19 minutes, 19 seconds. In a nice touch, all the special features are playable separately or all together.
While not yet a guarantee of worthwhile horror filmmaking, "After Dark Horrorfest" could evolve into a trustworthy imprint. Director Zev Berman's Borderland is certainly indicative of what the future could hold; it's a gripping, grim thrill ride with its roots in reality (allegedly) and a welcome penchant for never dumbing down its narrative for the sake of simple splatter. Recommended.