Found Footage Fave – Final Prayer/The Borderlands (SPOILERS!)

This movie was first released in the UK as The Borderlands and had a later release in the US in 2015 as Final Prayer. It was written and directed by Elliot Goldner. The film documents a Vatican team sent to investigate the veracity of a claim about a miracle made by a priest in a tiny parish in the English countryside.

SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.

Reason for Filming: The Vatican has sent a team to investigate claims of a miracle, and due to recent problems at other investigation sites, has decided they want every minute of the investigation to be documented.

What’s the Horror: Demons, Paranormal, Ancient Monster Lore

Does the Dog Die? A sheep is set on fire by some locals in an attempt to warn the investigators – you don’t see much but you do hear some awful sheep-screaming. I usually skip past this part.

Gore Factor: None until the very end, and it’s tolerable

Character Quality: Excellent. This is primarily a character-driven storyline and the chemistry between the main characters, as well as the other actors in the film, is effective and engaging.

Re-Watch Scale: Regular rotation. I love this movie.

At the heart of Final Prayer is the friendship that the two main characters, a clergyman named Deacon (which, yes, is confusing, and I questioned constantly whether or not this was his title or his name) and non-Catholic camera/sound technician Gray. Gray has been hired by the Vatican to go along on this investigation and it’s clear he is a new addition to the team – Deacon is initially not happy about his inclusion, nor is he pleased with the Vatican’s (and therefore, Gray’s) insistence that absolutely everything be recorded this time around – this includes fitting the two of them out with body cameras they are required to wear every waking second, aside from taking a shower or using the toilet. “I’ve been promoted to tripod,” Deacon grumbles as Gray forces him to put his camera on, and he’s not wrong.

It becomes clear throughout the course of the film that the main reason for all this added security is Deacon himself – it’s clearer to the audience than it is to Gray, at least, because the movie opens with a scene of a previous investigation where fraud was discovered by Deacon and his team. Unfortunately, the other members of Deacon’s team also went missing and were found dead some time later; we catch a glimpse of Deacon on a cell phone explaining to someone about how everyone vanished, and then he barks at the camera to cut away – much as he will spend a fair amount of time at the start of the movie barking at Gray.

Deacon is also displeased that a third member of the team is a priest named Father Mark Almidor. Deacon has no poker face when it comes to his displeasure with things, and his reaction to hearing from Gray that Father Mark is on his way clearly bothers him. It’s not a surprising bit of tension to inject into the film, and it’s worth paying attention to how the conflict between these two characters affects Gray’s judgment as he bonds more closely with Deacon. There are times throughout the film that Gray probably should listen more to Father Mark than he does to his new friend, but his distaste for Father Mark – who is unbearable whether or not we’re influenced by Deacon’s dislike of him – causes Gray to side more often than he should with Deacon. It’s this friendship between the hard-nosed, world-weary Deacon and the affable, loopy, and overly trusting Gray that endears the audience to them, while tragically leading Gray to his ugly fate. When Gray needs to have perspective on the situation, he is too easily led astray by Deacon – no matter how unintentional Deacon’s influence may be.

Deacon immediately gets up to his usual antics by refusing to wait for Father Mark to show up to start the investigation – a breach of protocol that Gray is appropriately wary about. But Deacon responds by basically kicking Gray’s camera around and threatening to break it, so off they go. They meet with Father Crellick, the priest of a small (like REALLY small) church that has recently caught what Crellick claims to be a miracle on camera. It was a baptism, so it makes sense that it was being recorded, and during the middle of the ceremony, as the baby starts to cry (that will be important later, as is the fact that the chapel has only been re-opened for a few months) the walls start to tremble, there’s some of rumbling sound in the background, and artifacts roll and tumble off the altar, seemingly on their own. It was odd to me personally to see Crellick immediately hold his arms up to heaven and say “Father…” as the film cuts out, as it doesn’t look at all to me like a miracle and much more like an earthquake. I can understand why the Vatican wants to investigate this one – although I know they investigate all claims of miracles no matter how convincing they may seem, and most are deemed fraudulent.

Crellick comes across as odd and more than a little shifty; he’s nervous and is shocked that his video miracle requires investigation. This strikes me as strange because I am not Catholic and even I know this is a part of the process, so it doesn’t ring true that Crellick would be insulted by Deacon’s presence and insistence on checking out the chapel. Crellick is quite young, though, and comes across as pretty unsure of himself, and it’s implied that opening this church has been a project of his for some time and he is struggling to establish it as a real presence in the rural community. None of this endears Deacon to him or leads him to believe in the veracity of his “miracle.” Gray, in my opinion, is overly impressed with Crellick’s video for a videographer and sound technician, but my guess is the movie is trying to portray Gray as a fairly gullible person early on in the proceedings. Gray keeps commenting on how convincing and amazing the video is, a fact with which neither Deacon nor the audience agrees. Obviously Deacon is jaded from years of investigating and discovering fraud, and Gray, who is not Catholic nor is he particularly religious, is all too fascinated by the supernatural aspects of the event to care. A lovely chat in a local bar draws out the first real conversation between the two; Deacon’s cynicism and Gray’s naivete are established, as well as the chemistry the two are going to build on as the story moves forward. Gray is more than willing to ask Deacon anything he pleases, and Deacon seems to enjoy sharing his wisdom on a subject Gray knows nothing about and about which he is deeply interested.

Soon Father Almidor arrives. He’s pissed Deacon started investigating before he arrived, so the two are off to a testy start. Gray, as usual, jokes and cajoles with the new member of the team, but Almidor is far less influenced by his charms (which can been seen as endearing, as I do, or as terribly annoying, which is another popular analysis of the Gray character). Since the cottage is tricked out with 24-7 cameras, as well as the chapel once Gray sets everything up, we see a few odd nighttime occurrences that are caught on film. In one instance, some people are clearly seen sneaking up to the front porch; we hear voices that distinctly sound like teenagers whispering and giggling. And then there’s the awful sheep scene, which I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say it’s the same group of teens trying to antagonize the outsiders. It’s never made clear why the townspeople are so hostile to the team at this point, and upon first viewing I thought it meant they were in on whatever is going on at the church, but now I’m more inclined to believe the antagonism is introduced both as a red herring and an added atmosphere among a small insular town that distrusts anyone they see as foreign, as this storyline gets dropped pretty quickly and not really resolved.

As Deacon, Gray, and Almidor spend their days investigating inside the chapel, they hear things they can’t explain. Scratching sounds, and a deep rumbling that inexplicably seems to move around the room. Father Almidor finds an open space in a wall that is covered by heavy plastic and shows clear signs of being in mid-construction; it’s clear that the recently re-opened chapel still needs a lot of work. As Almidor pulls back the plastic and peers inside – wearing his ever-present body camera – we hear a strange, electric, whizzing sound, and down Father goes, knocked unconscious and bleeding from his ear. This is another thing that is never satisfactorily explained, but it is what it is.

They take Almidor back to the cottage, where he insists no hospital trip is needed. This is probably good news, since I have my doubts there’s a hospital anywhere near their location. Almidor proves to be just as stubborn as Deacon when he wants to be, and while Gray pleads with him to get some medical help, Father Almidor simply says goodnight and skulks off to bed, leaving Gray to make a comment directly to the camera giving his own opinion of the subject to cover his ass in case Father Mark doesn’t wake up. It’s another nice moment where Gray is clearly in contrast to the other two men, who are so deeply entrenched in their acceptance of order and protocol and rules that they routinely behave in illogical ways – Father Mark has a job to do, and he’s going to do it, period-the-end. I guess he thinks God will take care of the earache? Through further conversations between Deacon and Gray, we learn that while Gray is not religious, per se, he believes in something, agrees that there’s an afterlife, and is open to the idea that God exists. In other words, Gray is probably the majority of the audience, and it works to draw us closer in to his experience. And while Deacon may be willing to buck the rules when it suits him, it’s also clear that he is still firmly committed to the comfort and routine of a deeply religious life (in an early scene, Deacon is shown removing small iconographic artifacts from a backpack and placing them carefully down on the table beside him and lighting incense, his face wearing a rare, peaceful smile) and is still capable of being clouded by his beliefs from time to time.

And speaking of Deacon and the two of them bonding in a bar – it is indicated at the beginning of the movie that whoever hired Gray also wants him to keep an eye on Deacon. There’s a phone call we see only through Gray’s perspective, where he is obviously asked if Deacon is drinking, and Gray (who already has an affinity for the guy) defends him by saying he doesn’t drink much, he’s very competent at what he does, and it’s just to take the edge off of the stress. It’s clear that Gray is on Deacon’s side here, but it’s also evident that Gray DID get warning before signing up for the job that his teammate might be a bit of a loose cannon. However, Gray comes across as the sort who respects that in a person, and he appreciates Deacon’s willingness to break the rules a little too much to see that this personality trait might be to everyone’s detriment in the end.

This is a slow burn movie, and the horror builds gradually. We get several scenes inside the chapel as the chaps investigate, and the sounds get weirder (along with the rumbling that moves around the space, there’s the occasionally crying baby – remember the baptism? – that Father Almidor writes off as interference from a nearby baby monitor, revealing a level of skepticism at least as deep as Deacon’s) and eventually, some unnaturally mobile candlesticks and even a huge crucifix falling off the wall in one of the film’s few jump scares. But to me these events were always combined with loud groaning or rumbling that indicates a moving of the earth, so I remained as skeptical as the two clergymen throughout most of the film – an intentional technique that eventually pays off in spades.

We also get a nighttime scene of Crellick – who’s been told by the team to stay away for a few days – sneaking in and praying for God to return and produce another miracle while the investigators are there. We can see it because of the cameras Gray has installed around the chapel. We can hear babies crying, rumbling and groans, and a door that slowly creaks as it swings back and forth. The next morning, Crellick is still sitting on the altar steps when the team arrives; he tells them he heard the sounds again the night before, which doesn’t do much to impress the cynics, although Gray is willing to believe him.

One afternoon, as the team is there arguing over what they each think is going on, we hear a rumble and see a candlestick leap off the altar. For a brief moment everyone is impressed, until we see stupid Crellick standing right outside the window, which is enough for Father Mark to discount the experience. Father goes chasing after Crellick, and finally catches up to him on the chapel’s roof. Crellick is upset – he knows the men don’t believe his miracle is for real, and while that’s probably enough to upset him, he also hints at something darker: if what’s going on is not a miracle, he reasons, then it must be something evil, because he knows it is definitely real, and if it’s something real and evil, did he do something to bring it about? Is he the one responsible for unleashing it, whatever it is? Father Mark attempts to calm Crellick down, and turns his head for a moment – since we are watching this from the perspective of Almidor’s head-cam, we follow his movements – and he (and we) turns back just in time to see the edge of Crellick’s robes as he topples over the tower wall and onto the ground below. Soon enough he is dead, and Father Mark decides that the investigation needs to close to avoid further controversy. He’s weary of the attention since the incident in Belem – the one where Deacon’s team ended up dead – and he wants to pack it up quietly and go home. Needless to say, Deacon does not agree.

Back to the chapel he goes by himself that night, and more spookiness ensues. He ends up getting super-freaked and running away, and immediately calls up an old friend, in direct defiance now of Father Almidor, who is supposed to be in charge, and ask for his help. Soon it’s morning, and Father Mark is pissed at Deacon for calling in Father Calvino, an old codger Almidor sees as a remnant of the Church’s past, when it still believed in demons and other hooky-spooky stuff he believes the Church needs to abandon once and for all, lest it lose all credibility. Father Calvino, it turns out, is an old mentor of Deacon’s, and a specialist in exorcisms and demon-chasing. Overall, this is odd given Deacon’s own cynicism when it comes to miracles, but it turns out Deacon’s become convinced that Crellick was right – there is something going on in the chapel, but it ain’t a miracle. And it most certainly is not of God.

Over the protestations of an angry Almidor, Father Calvino explains the history of the area, dating back to ancient times, as well as some history of the Church, that used to appropriate pagan temples and turn them into Catholic chapels rather than destroy them. Wouldn’t you know – this particular chapel was once the site of an ancient entity that pagans believed lived inside the large hill where the church is now situated. They used to pray and make sacrifices to this entity to appease it – some say they did not just sacrifice animals but possible humans, specifically babies, as well – so Calvino thinks the evil spirit of this pagan entity lives on in the chapel now; it may have been dormant for centuries, and been awakened when Father Crellick re-opened the church, or possibly when it heard that first baby cry at the chapel’s first baptism. Deacon and Gray also found an old diary in the chapel that hints at a priest centuries ago, who used the church as an orphanage and also wrote of mysterious happenings before going mad. No wonder Crellick felt guilty enough to plunge himself to his death – unless some unknown force pushed him? We’ll never know.

Off the team goes so Calvino can perform an exorcism that Father Mark is clearly against. He’s clearly outnumbered, though, as Calvino, Deacon, and Gray all now believe that there’s an evil force in the church that needs to be removed. Almidor throws a wrench into the trio’s unity by revealing to Gray the truth about Deacon’s involvement in the Belem disaster – Deacon was the lead investigator, he was told to shut things down but disobeyed, and it was through him stubbornly forging ahead that all his team members were killed. It’s clear Father Mark hopes to turn Gray against Deacon with this news to even the score, and it almost works – but in the most crucial moment of the film, when Gray should side with Almidor instead of his friend, Deacon plays the sympathy card on him to influence Gray to stick to his side.

To me, this moment is the crux of the film. It’s the climactic moment where Gray seals his own fate. We’ve watched the bond build between Deacon and Gray throughout the course of the film, and Almidor’s news causes Gray real pain. He’s hurt that Deacon would keep such an important thing from him, especially as often as the subject has come up, and his trust in Deacon is really shaken. Sure, Gray’s walking with the team back up to the chapel as if he’s going to follow along, but he’s furious with Deacon and doubting whether or not he can trust his friend. Deacon stops him to apologize and explain that he didn’t want to talk about Belem with anyone because the pain of how his actions hurt so many others is greater than he can bear. This works on Gray, and although it’s clear Deacon isn’t doing it intentionally, ultimately he uses his friendship with Gray to influence his decision. Gray cares about Deacon, and he feels pity for him for being in pain over his mistakes. He clearly sees his decision to stay with the team or go home as a test of his trust, and he realizes Deacon really needs Gray to believe in him. So after a moment of consideration, Gray makes his decision, and follows Deacon into the chapel.

It’s a fatal mistake, and after over an hour of slow burn the final act of Final Prayer kicks it up to eleven rapidly once Calvino and Co. make it into the chapel as the sky goes dark and he begins his exorcism ritual. Whatever is haunting the chapel does not respond positively, and it doesn’t take long for the walls to rumble, babies to cry, and Father Calvino to start bleeding out his eyeballs. There’s camera static and thunder and loud crashes that cause the feed to cut out for a moment – when Gray comes to, Father Almidor is dead on the floor, and Father Calvino is gone.

Deacon hears commotion in the little alcove where Father Almidor originally got his eardrum blasted (he dies, by the way, while holding his head and bleeding out his ears, as if the exorcism triggered whatever connection Father Mark now has to whatever’s going on in the chapel) and he charges down what we can now see is a spiral staircase. Father Crellick can clearly be heard, along with what sounds like Father Calvino, and while Gray takes a moment to shout for Deacon and focus in on some small bones that are evident on the stairway, he soon decides he’s had enough and turns to run out of the chapel. Unfortunately the door slams shut just as he is about to leave, and he screams a pitiful “I’m not even in this!” into the dark and empty room as he desperately tries to get the door to open. He’s right – he was just some bloke hired to do a job, and now he’s a part of whatever madness the team has unleashed.

But he doesn’t want to be alone in this creepy chapel, so he quite unwisely charges down the stairs to follow Deacon. He can hear him, but Deacon’s pretty far away, and the real terror in Gray’s voice and actions here are very convincing. Most dudes, I think, would hesitate to sound as completely fearful as the actor is willing to do here – his shrieking is high and wild, and he is sobbing uncontrollably. If the situation were not so dire, it might be funny, but as it is it’s chilling and very effective. We eventually get a jump scare as his camera light lands on Deacon – once Gray makes it down the stairs, he finds himself running through a dark tunnel, so the camera has now become a light source, which is how it will be used through the rest of the film.

Gray’s relief at finding Deacon is palpable, and it’s heart-wrenching how needy and desperate Gray is at this point. It should be a turning point for Deacon – he is haunted by how his actions hurt people in the past, and here Gray is, giving him the opportunity to redeem himself by making the right choice and turning back – but he insists on continuing instead, promising Gray repeatedly that it will be all right, and they’ll make it out alive. Whatever is going on is not supernatural, he insists, and there are no monsters here. Gray is too scared to turn back on his own, so he has no choice but to stick with Deacon, who is so drawn to the visions of Father Mark he keeps seeing in the distance, and the voices of both Crellick and Calvino that echo off the tunnel walls, to think about the very real danger into which he is leading the one person he should be trying to protect. Both Father Mark and Father Calvino, as well as Crellick, are clearly already dead, but Deacon can’t stop chasing the shadows of the men he left behind in Belem, and he loses all sense of perspective (figuratively and literally) as the tunnels get progressively more narrow and winding.

There are times when he seems to forget Gray is even there – the ultimate betrayal of Gray’s trust. After squeezing himself through a ridiculously narrow passage that opens up to a surprisingly open cave-like space, he hears Gray’s screams only to turn around (they’re both still wearing their head cams) and see that Gray has gotten completely stuck. Once again, it’s an opportunity for Deacon to be aware of how out of his element Gray is here, and how much he needs Deacon to lead him back out of the caves, but Deacon drags him through the space rather than pushing him back out, and it’s pretty clear at this point that Gray will never be able to make it back through that thing. It’s also strange – Deacon is a lot bigger than Gray, yet he made his way through that opening with ease whereas Gray got stuck. Are the tunnels – shrinking? I don’t really think they are – but I do think the movie is hinting at what’s coming with this little moment.

The two come across remnants of an ancient altar. There are markings on the wall indicating human sacrifice, and the bones of what are obviously children littered across the floor. This confirms a suspicion raised earlier about that priest who turned the chapel into an orphanage centuries ago – some more wall writings reveal that at some point this priest was overtaken by the evil of the place, and used children from the orphanage as sacrifices to what it was he believed lurked beneath. Yikes. Both Deacon and Gray are appropriately horrified. But they still see occasional glimpses of Father Mark in the distance, so Deacon is convinced there’s a way out ahead that they’re tracking down.

It’s about this time the movie sneaks up and slams the audience on the back of the head. Gray has a device on him that he sets up to provide a video feed to some distant camera, just in case they can’t find a way out and the feed gives someone information about where to find them. Still in Deacon’s wake, Gray follows him into a ridiculously narrow tunnel that looks distinctly different from anywhere they’ve ventured down there before – everything is covered in sickly green goo, and the walls underneath appear to be a strange shade of red. We see Deacon wedged into this space just ahead, and then – sickeningly – we catch a glimpse through Gray’s head cam as he shifts himself into a position where he can get inside of what’s happening behind him – the entrance to this tunnel is closing, and it looks like…a sphincter?

This is literally an oh shit moment, and when Deacon tells Gray it’s time to turn back, they can go no further, we hear the relief in Gray’s voice – thank God, we’re finally getting out of here – only to hear that tone turn to horror as he realizes the entrance is gone. Before either man can register the implications of this, the tunnel starts to move. “Dig!” Deacon shouts, and both he and Gray spend a few desperate moments trying to dig their way out of what at first appears to be a collapsing cavern, but then Gray screams, “It burns! It burns!” and we follow Deacon’s camera as it focuses in on Gray, covered in the green goo that is now secreting from the tunnel’s walls. Anywhere the goo lands on Gray, his skin begins to melt. “You said it wasn’t real!” Gray shouts at Deacon, as his skin, too, begins to melt from the secretions of what is now clearly a digestive organ. That’s right – there literally is an ancient monster underneath the chapel, and Deacon led Gray directly into its digestive tract without knowing it.

I have no words for the intensity of this scene – it’s a shock to realize what has happened here, and that the supernatural shit that’s been happening in the chapel was actually a real, living monster’s stomach grumbling and rumbling the chapel walls, causing things to fall and smash. As this horror is washing over us, we watch the fleshy organ close ever tighter on Deacon and Gray; the camera feed starts to cut out, but not before we get flashes of both of them melting away inside the churning organ. The final shot we see, after a second or two of dark silence, is poor Gray screaming in pain. The camera goes dark one last time, but not before we hear Deacon shouting out a Final Prayer for them both. The end.

Whoo! This is a movie that demands a re-watch, as it literally goes batshit in the final four minutes. The ending is quite divisive – for some viewers, it’s too much and comes at us too far from left field. For others, it’s shocking, brutal, and pretty much perfect. I am in the latter camp. While I was led to believe throughout the film that we would end up with a pretty standard demon-haunting, I instead got slammed inside the digestive tract of an ancient demon right alongside Deacon and Gray. And just like them, I never saw it coming. For me, Gray’s everyperson qualities make it easy for me to put myself in his place, and the tragedy of Deacon’s mistakes also makes him a sympathetic character. I really wanted these two to survive, and watching them die in such a horrific manner was downright painful. Also, upon second watch, I found the clues I missed all over the place the first time around, because the film had done such a good job of setting a very different set of expectations – and this, for me, reinforces the power of the ending. It doesn’t come across like something tacked on for shock value if you are able to see the signs. Sure, some of it doesn’t quite come together – I’m unclear on how the presence of some physical being can manifest the crying baby sounds, or the visions of the dead men Deacon clearly sees as he barrels way down into his own doom, or the need for a group of teens to burn a sheep, or how any of this connects to what went down with Deacon in Belem (even though there are hints of something supernatural happening there as well). But I’m willing to overlook it, because of the excellent character work, compelling premise, and slam-bang ending that left me feeling truly, deeply disturbed for quite some time. This is an excellent film, and truly one worth watching!