Damn near every year brings yet another installment in the age-old critical debate regarding how to define a horror movie.
In 2017, The Discourse raged about whether Get Out falls within the bounds of the genre; Hereditary was 2018’s victim.
Actually, “victim” might be too sensationalist; it depends on the intent, and outcome, of these discussions. If their aim is to draw clear lines between various pieces of art out of some sort of purity instinct, then that’s completely pointless, and limiting. Rather, genre designations are only welcome when the subsequent conversations in some way deepen our understanding of the work, not reduce them into tidy little boxes. By connecting a movie to a familiar genre register, it enters into an inherent conversation with the expectations of the form, and its typical recipes; analyzing how the filmmakers manipulate these ingredients to cook up different stews should be the bread and butter of Criticism.
Towards that end, I want to spotlight a new movie that wrestles with the horror genre to keep the audience on their intellectual toes: Border.
And wrestling with what the movie actually is will be what audiences spend the first part of the movie doing. There’s a pervasive tone of perverse mystery that keeps us engaged while the whole picture slowly comes into view — affording us ample time to piece together what exactly we’re watching, in terms of the nature of the universe and the themes of the narrative unfolding within it — all while we stew in this affecting air of something being amiss, a staple of horror build-ups.
Once the secrets are revealed — speaking of which: spoilers, ahoy! — these revelations further root us firmly in the land of the supernatural: trolls definitely fit within horror’s usual purview. And yet, Border‘s not a traditional horror movie, in that its predominant goal — from moment to moment, scene to scene, and on a macro level — is not to scare. What’s most horrifying here is its commentary on the house of horrors that is humanity, specifically on what grounds we define who is human, and thus who possesses humanity, and thus who is worthy of our humanity in the form of humane treatment.
When the movie starts, it’s unclear if we’re in the presence of just an unconventional-looking person (Eva Melander, in an Academy Award-caliber performance, underneath Academy Awards-caliber makeup), or is she something…else? She definitely seems different than most humans, and the aforementioned askew tone reinforces this suspicion. Though the ultimate reveal specifies her unusual genome, the unclear nature of the set-up allows her ostracized plight to become a sort of allegory for the marginalized.
Once she becomes aware of her chemical separation from humanity — as in, she’s literally a different species — she realizes that she’s not “lesser-than” anyone. Before, her otherness came from possessing little of the physical attributes upon which society arbitrarily bases their hierarchies. But now that she can see through the bullshit of that facade, she begins asking questions the audience should’ve been pondering all along: Since evil can’t be seen from the outside, why do we insist on judging from looks alone? And who decides on the definition of what constitutes “normal”, anyways?
Even worse, we tend to exploit the strengths of these outsiders — in her case, she’s a border patrol agent (the surface meaning of the title), given her inhuman sense of smell — while still demonizing her harmless differences. And, in life, sometimes you get what you give. We as a society are responsible for any resulting reign of terror when once-innocents start acting like the creatures we’ve always considered them. As they say: What goes around comes around.
Border joins a once-more blossoming series of horror-ish movies that hammer home, often violently, this Frankensteinian concept. To borrow the preferred parlance of 21st century cinema, they’re origin stories, creation myths of friendly monsters turned monstrous by their monstrous treatment at the hands of purportedly moral society. Interestingly — though, unfortunately, not surprisingly — a vast majority of these recent cinematic explorations, including Raw, Beast, The Transfiguration, Thelma, etc. etc. etc., revolve around either gender or race, reflecting the borders of our own divisions.
I wanted to end by decrying Border‘s omission from this year’s shortlist for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language…and yet, setting aside the egregious snub, the fact that the powers-that-be ever needed to separate movies based on the language spoken now seems like a sad indictment relevant to Border’s themes.
Mind you, I don’t want to do away with the category, because it’s undeniably important; without an individual award for non-English-language fare, this deserving work would have a slim chance of contending at all, because subtitled movies just don’t get proper releases in America (where most voters live), because apparently audiences don’t like reading movies, and because they relate more to their own cultures…
…which is kind of a horrifying notion, and directly to Border‘s point, no? I want to live in a world where foreign films, and people considered “foreign”, will be able to compete equally, without the label of “foreign.”