Hail, readers! Welcome to Devils in the Details, a monthly column examining the satanic and occult influences in horror. This column provides a non-sensational look at these influences by examining them through the perspective of modern Occult scholarship. The study of satanism and the occult is a life-long endeavor, and I have much yet to learn. I hope you will join me in this sojourn into the darkness!
Borderland (2007) follows three Texas friends on a summer break before heading off to college. As part of the trip, the trio heads down to a Mexican border town only to run afoul of a Mexican cult tied to a dangerous drug cartel. The film adapts the true story of a similar American spring breaker kidnapped and murdered by serial killer and drug runner Adolfo Constanzo and his fanatic cult members. As in the movie, Adolfo Constanzo and his cult followed a religion called Palo Mayombe, a denomination of the Afro-Cuban religion Palo. As an adaptation, Borderland takes creative license with the event. It applies several early-2000s horror tropes but ultimately remains a fairly accurate representation of Constanzo’s cult, at least when it comes to their violence.
The film stars Brian Presley, Rider Strong, and Jake Muxworthy, with other well-known names such as Sean Astin and Martha Higareda joining the cast. Borderland follows the typical formula: young Americans go on a trip abroad, offend the locals, and must then fight for their lives. Henry, Rider Strong’s character, gets kidnapped during a shroom-induced trip. However, rather than get murdered or tortured right off the bat a-la-Hostel, Henry is held captive until Papa Santillan arrives.
Santillan vs. Adolfo Constanzo
Santillan is Borderland’s Adolfo Constanzo analog, and in that respect, the film gets a lot of things right. Played by the talented Beto Cuevas, Santillan definitely fits the suave yet slightly effeminate Adolfo Constanzo. Part of the reason Constanzo amassed so many followers is due to his strange allure. Further, his followers’ devotion is evident, and their willingness to not only murder but torture at his command is a great representation of Constanzo’s crew. Another nice touch was the inclusion of Constanzo’s trusted second-in-command by the name of Sara Aldrete, who has her own analog.
Really, the only nitpick is Santillan’s portrayal as a drug lord. While Constanzo did have a hand in drug running, he was no cartel leader himself as much as he aspired to be one. One final touch adding to the legitimacy of Santillan as a Constanzo analog is his overconfidence even when facing the barrel of a shotgun, alluding to Constanzo’s supreme belief in his faith and its ability to protect him from any and all harm. Santillan’s adherence to Mayombe and its rituals is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Borderland.
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While minimal, Borderland’s depiction of Palo Mayombe is surprisingly careful. Within the first few scenes, police officers raid Santillan’s presumed hideout. Within, they find a cauldron filled with various gory items and a human skull. One officer suggests Santeria, and the other corrects him, saying it is something else. Simply including the distinction should be commended as most religious horror movies do not concern themselves with such details.
Palo Mayombe itself is often misunderstood and is sometimes referred to as Santeria’s “evil twin.” These interpretations do not consider the concepts behind Palo Mayombe rituals and instead focus solely on their disturbing nature. While Palo Mayombe can employ human remains, specifically bones, Palo Mayombe is rooted in Kongo spiritual beliefs. Palo Mayombe, like other denominations of the Palo religion, relies heavily on nature spirits which pervade every living thing from a stick to a human. In exchange for the spirits’ services, the Palero (Palo practitioner) venerates the spirits by making offerings in a Nganga. The Nganga, typically an iron cauldron, not only holds the offerings towards the spirits but the spirits themselves.
“[Borderland] applies several early-2000s horror tropes but ultimately remains a fairly accurate representation of Constanzo’s cult, at least when it comes to their violence. “
Borderland could have explored this aspect more thoroughly, but it’s safe to attribute this omission to time as the production obviously did their homework. While a lot of the symbology is sensationalist with blood sigils and goat heads, one symbol, in particular, adds to Borderland’s credibility. In the final ritual scene in which the cult prepares to sacrifice Henry, one can see a white symbol painted on the dirt floor. It’s hard to see, but this symbol is undeniably a dikenga, a Kongo cosmological symbol and the basis for the Palo Mayombe belief that spirits never leave and death is just the process of becoming one of these spirits.
However, it should be noted that Constanzo’s Palo Mayombe, and in-kind Santillan’s Palo Mayombe, is a bastardization of the religion. Much like Satanists don’t generally sacrifice babies, Paleros don’t go around murdering people for their Ngangas. Constanzo believed that pain and a “good” body added power to his Nganga and, by proxy himself. Like his portrayal in Borderland, he believed that the violence he perpetrated had a higher purpose in that it served his end goal. He would bury his victims with their spines protruding from the ground so that he could harvest and add them to his Nganga at a later time. In reality, Constanzo simply enjoyed murder and causing pain to others. What may have begun as a power play by seducing powerful drug lords with his witchy ways ended with inhuman violence with no more purpose than satisfying Constanzo’s own bloodlust.
Portrayal of Violence
Perhaps the most impactful aspect of Borderland was its portrayal of the violence perpetrated by Constanzo. In one of the opening scenes, the audience is treated to an especially visceral torture scene. While Borderland does fall right in the era of torture-porn, unlike Constanzo’s murders, this scene serves a purpose – it’s brutal. In a fittingly torturous, four-minute scene, Ulises, played by Damián Alcázar, witnesses his partner’s agony as his arm is sawed off, followed by the removal of both eyes.
The scene is hard to watch, and one might think it sets the tone for the rest of the film, but surprisingly, the rest of Borderland is tame in comparison. Sure, the scene warns the audience of what kind of brutality they can expect, but it also shows the real killings’ brutality. Constanzo was uncharacteristic brutal with his victims. Without going into detail, the final death method was almost always by machete, a fate shared by another victim later on in the film. Fans of Green Room or The Ritual will likely join me as I recoil at the thought of death-by-machete.
“While the film does receive the obligatory “action movie” treatment common in 2000s horror, its steering away from the details keeps the film from getting bogged down in inconsistency.“
In addition to the visceral violence, Borderland portrays two other horrors that plague Mexico and its border towns, police corruption, and Desaparecidos. I won’t go too in-depth on this, but I found it notable that the people, their lost ones, and the apathetic or cowardly police that choose to ignore their duty had a place within this movie.
Borderland is a fairly accurate adaptation of true events. While the film does receive the obligatory “action movie” treatment common in 2000s horror, its steering away from the details keeps the film from getting bogged down in inconsistency. It is refreshing to see a film with such high production value treat the source material with respect. However, it ultimately falls into the same trope as satanic horror movies showcasing not the underlying religion but its worst members. The difference here is the reality behind the tragic events.
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