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The Nostalgic Attic: The Borrower (1991)

25 March 2014

The Borrower (1991)

"Don't lend him anything you can't afford to lose!"

Following up on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer must have been a strange job for director, John McNaughton. His directorial debut had sat on the shelf for 3 years due to 'lack of faith in the project' from the producers, until they reluctantly began screening it in 1989. The film went on to be a cult hit, becoming one of the most controversial films to hit mainstream video in the 90's. Before all that could happen, McNaughton needed to find a new project to prove he could direct, seeing as Henry was unavailable. It seems odd that he landed on The Borrower, as it couldn't be more tonally different from his previous film, but McNaughton has proved over his patchy career that he is never interested in doing what is expected from him. And hey, that's definitely something to celebrate, whether you like his films or not.

The Borrower kicks off in outer space, with a violent alien being sentenced for his crimes. Instead of death, he is banished to lowly planet Earth, after being 'devolved' into human form.  Unfortunately for him, the process of devolution leaves him vulnerable to bodily meltdown; he can break apart or practically explode at any time. Even worse; they kick him off the space ship in Hicksville, USA, and the first people he meets are a couple of shit-heeled father-and-son poachers with guns. After he loses his noggin in a tussle, he 'borrows' a new head from the father (Tom Towles; Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and flees the scene. 

The nasty alien then hitches a ride to the nearest city, where he takes in the primitive culture of humans in the guise of strip joints, drug dealers and casual violence. He meets a friendly hobo by the name of Julius (Antonio Fargas; Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch) who begins to show him how to fit in with the rest of the scummy humans. 

Meanwhile, the death of the hick has landed on the desk of world-weary detective, Diana Pierce (Rae Dawn Chong; Commando, Soul Man, The Color Purple). The surviving son from the initial attacks seems crazy; aliens and exploding heads? But why did he call the cops himself if he committed the crime? Or did he? Soon she is hot on the heals of the 'borrower', as he constantly has to replace his head when the old one fails him, leaving a pile of headless corpses in his wake. Will Diana be able to stop this nasty bugger?  Just how many heads will he get through before he is stopped?

Despite the gory horror premise, The Borrower is actually quite light in tone. In ways it can be seen as a satire on just how unappealing 'big city' life can be, as every character is a tramp, drughead, wino, criminal, hooker or violent psycho; making the alien seem nearly placid among all the nasty humans. Well, apart from the head-ripping business, I guess. Most of the humour is enjoyable, especially with the tramps. Some of the other scenes can be hit-or-miss, such as when he is picked up after being run over by a seriously dumb broad. Juxtaposed with these moments are more straight scenes with Rae Dawn Chong as the cop hunting the killer. Some of them tend to drag on, and the sub-plot about a violent perp out for revenge against her seems like it belongs in a different film, as it is much more serious in tone and never gels comfortably with the rest of the material. 

The film is rather episodic in nature, and only in the last twenty minutes does it actively move towards bringing  its loose threads together. And that's when the film just grinds to a halt. It seems that the  production may have run out of cash, and had to be finished up quickly and cheaply. Cheaply and quickly is exactly what we get. It's horribly rushed, and out of sync with the rest of the film, which was already patchy to begin with. Even the opening scene on board the spaceship seems at odds with the film that comes immediately afterwards, almost like it was shot by a different director and crew.

It's a pity, as The Borrower is a fairly enjoyable film. The special effects are fantastic, and are done by genre hero Kevin Yagher, who was responsible for some excellent work in some of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, as well as Childs Play. We get plenty of 'bladder' effects, exploding heads, head rippings, some intenstines and random bloodletting. The soundtrack reminded me of the fun, spiky nonsense Goblin did for Demons, and really helps the fun factor. Acting across the board is patchy, though there are plenty of recognisable faces amongst the cast to keep genre fans happy. Keep an eye out for Madchen Amick towards the climax in a role that predates her sexy turn as Shelly in Twin Peaks. There are also nods to other horror flicks, including Henry, to keep you entertained.

Despite being shot in 1988 (the film lives and breaths late 80's), it ran into problems when the distributor hit the bricks and remained shelved until 1991 when it finally got a release. It seems that McNaughton wasn't having much luck early on in his career, but thankfully for him things took a turn for the better when Henry finally got an official release. The Borrower is most likely going to remain a minor blip on a fairly inconsistent director's CV, but if you like films like The Blob or The Hidden, then I definitely recommend it.

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At 27 March 2014 at 04:12 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, another great selection. Really enjoyed this post, your piece is the first time I’ve read anything on The Borrower that has made me want to see it… I first heard about the film after seeing Henry, and feeling completely unenthused by the story following McNaughton’s great breakthrough film. Also, I remember it being unfavorably compared to The Hidden, the quintessential 80’s body-swap Horror film, but more so when I was younger I think I was more hardcore about the auteur theory, and The Borrower in that sense seemed like a huge mistake. But reading your piece, the film feels every inch like that difficult second album, and park these things up for a few years, and leave the dust settle, they often turn out to be really interesting. Thanks for the trailer – this is my first time seeing a frame of footage from the film and despite the usual scattershot Cannon trailer, the film looks like a hoot. I think I’ll seek this out (sadly in the absence of a DVD, it will have to be youtube)…

Why didn’t Tom Towles become a bigger actor ? I was just flicking thru his filmography and was surprised to see how many of films of his I actually have – Henry, Night of the Living Dead 90, Stuart Gordon’s Pit and the Pendulum, and three for Rob Zombie: House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects and Halloween, plus one I must admit I didn’t cop – the Miami Vice film where he played the boss of the white-supremacist crew…

John I wonder is McNaughton’s Mad Dog and Glory worth a revisit – I saw this film when it came out in ’93, and while my memory of the film is a bit sketchy I remember it being one of those films that was quirky enough to warrant a second viewing, which I never did get around to. That’s another film that stands apart tonally from McNaughton’s previous films…

At 27 March 2014 at 05:19 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes, it really is a tightrope you walk when recommending a film such as this. Die hard Henry fans will hate it for its lack of gritty realism or cold nature, where as Troma fans would lap it up in a heartbeat. The more you read on McNaughton, the more you get the impression that he never really understood all the fuss about H:POASK, and apparently he doesn't even like discussing the film anymore at conventions or in interviews. I get the impression the film was intended to play more for the satire elements, but at the same time it strikes me that the man needed to earn a crust and needed to get something more straight forward out there to make a successful film. Sadly, it wasn't to work out that way. I also am mellowing out as I get older and becoming less dismissive on films such as this, where I might have previously cast aside as 'not gory enough' or 'not as hardcore as..', and I can step back and see how something might fit into the 'bigger picture', I guess. I actually caught this one on the horror channel, not sure if you have that station. No doubt it will be repeated, if so, and the print looked good enough.

Tom Towles, yup, I felt the same thing when researching this. He could have had a great career in TV; he would easily have fit into many character roles in great shows (I could see him in Oz, or anything crime related, really) but he never seemed to capitalise on it. I have all the flicks you mentioned, and I guess he was cast in NOTLD on the back of Henry, in the same way Rooker used it to land JFK...I will see if I can find any interviews with him that might share some light on it.

I have the feeling that Mad Dog might be a seriously underrated film that is itching for re-discovery. I too rented it back in the day (I had no idea who McNaughton was then, though) and remember liking it a lot, but I nearly had forgotten about it until when I was reading up on McNaughton. Great cast, too, it will be interesting to view it again. As I said, the man doesn't seem to care for notions of what he 'should' be making, or what alleged fans want him to make. Do we really want to see him trying to re-create Henry? Not that he would want to, I love it when directors are able to hop from one genre to another. He went on to make one of the mostly hotly rented films of the 90's with Wild Things, no doubt every tape in existence is worn out at specific points in the film...and that was a throwback to old school exploitation in many ways, and a completely different feel from previous works.

His new film sounds interesting, and the first in a long time. It stars Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon, which is good enough reason to watch it anyway, but it is also a horror film. I look forward to it, and hope the man can continue to carve out his own little spot in film history for many years to come.

At 27 March 2014 at 07:53 , Blogger Wes M said...

Oh that’s good news about the Horror Channel, I usually do check the listings every day for the odd curiosity, so hopefully it will come my way. I know what you mean about mellowing out on certain films – in my case The Gate (which you led me to seeing again, thanks) a film I had no time for in my twenties, or something like Silver Bullet, a film I think gets an unfair rough ride from Howling and American Werewolf fans but for me strongly recalls that 80's sensibility. There’s probably a whole strata of films I have not seen in 15, 20 years that might be due a second viewing – The Wraith, Shocker, House, Ghoulies, Warlock, 976-Evil, Pet Sematary – all summarily dismissed for one reason or another. Still, time can’t heal everything, and recent screenings of Return of the Living Dead II and Class of Nuke ‘Em High were painful.

I can well understand McNaughton's disdain for Henry, that's a tough break for film makers when their debut is regarded as their life-work. John I'm conscious about steering this comment back to Henry but I'll just say this (and it dials in with a point you raised in your review of The Borrower): I probably saw Henry around the same time as you, in the mid-to-late 90's on VHS (it would take some years before I finally saw it uncut via a Dutch DVD), but it was only in the last two years that I really got a sense of Henry, when I visited Chicago. So, you fly into O'Hare and you can catch an overground train all the way to the city - meaning the city of skyscraper canyons, Millennium Park and Wrigley Field, but before all that there's the 40min journey through Chicago's hinterland of sprawling warehouses, out of town malls, and low rent-housing, and it's that area, that very flat, hard-edge of the city, that McNaughton really suffused in the film, the idea of two degenerates stalking that ground with apparent impunity powerfully resonated with me on that 40min ride. The film doesn't explicitly declare itself as set in Chicago, but the toughness of the city is found not so much in its visuals but in the film's DNA. I love that...

At 27 March 2014 at 09:02 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

You definitely should re-watch the likes of shocker and Pet Semetary (I actually think this one is a step above the likes of House and Ghoulies, for sure) as they really are time capsules for what the market was doing back then. They were aimed at teenagers, sneaking a few beers and staying up late with a bunch of rentals. The market and mentality behind it has changed, as we know all-too-well, but sometimes it takes an older, wiser self to see the greatness in (sometimes) truly idiotic cinema.

Yup, that's when I saw it (still have the tape in the attic), and funnily enough, I don't think I've ever taken it the way you mention now, in terms of how the city is used. it's great when an experience like that can change how you feel about a film you were no doubt very familiar with, and it's something I will definitely watch out for on my next viewing. Good call!

P.S, I will defend Class of Nuke Em High to my grave; only re-watched it last week and still loved it! You will not find me doing the same for ROTLD II, however...

At 12 June 2014 at 19:25 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I have somehow missed seeing this for two decades, despite loving Henry - so that's all I have to say about that. For now.


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