31 Days of Horror: Film 24: The Borrower (1991)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

John McNaughton is an ambitious director who likes to play with different tones. Unfortunately, he is not a master of all the tonal shifts he tries to make. Aside from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—which is a grubby, depressing masterpiece—all of his films can be described as interesting, but deeply flawed. Using that description for his career, I would say that The Borrower is probably the film most representative of McNaughton’s directorial style and interests.

A violent, murderous alien is deemed too horrible to execute for his crimes. Instead, as a punishment worse than death, he is “devolved” into the body of a human and dumped on Earth. Almost immediately, his human body tries to change back to its alien shape, with the result of his head exploding in front of two deer poachers in a forest preserve. Instead of dying, the alien rips the head off one of the hunters (Tom Towles) and places it on his own body. Looking like a zombie version of the hunter, the alien stumbles into an unnamed city (much of the film was shot in Chicago, but it is never named) where he is forced to repeat the head-ripping process over and over as his body keeps trying to return to its alien form.

Meanwhile, police detectives Pierce (Rae Dawn Chong) and Krieger (Don Gordon) are investigating the murders, believing themselves to be on the trail of a vicious serial killer.

It’s hard to know what genre to call The Borrower. It starts out with a goofy sci-fi premise before veering into the splatter film subgenre. The film then awkwardly becomes an opposite riff on fish out of water comedy as the alien wanders through a hellish city full of homeless people, drug dealers, rapists, and gang members. The obvious joke that the bloodied alien doesn’t look or act that out of place in a seedy, violent city is admirably under-played by McNaughton and the various actors portraying the alien.

If The Borrower had continued as a straight-faced comedy punctuated with moments of grisly violence, it would have been a better movie. But McNaughton and writers Richard Fire and Mason Nage try to force in a gritty subplot about Pierce’s obsession with a rapist (Neil Giuntoli) she arrested who subsequently escaped from police custody. If the subplot had more to do with the main story, I could forgive the conflicting tones, but the two stories only merge in the film’s final ten minutes. Considering all the potentially absurd angles the main story could have taken, it’s frustrating every time McNaughton cuts away to the rapist subplot, using up even more of the film’s relatively short running time.

Despite having a budget much larger than he had on Henry, McNaughton was still working on a shoestring with The Borrower. While he does get some impressive makeup effects courtesy of Kevin Yagher, large chunks of the film are shot guerilla-style, stealing shots on streets and sidewalks and setting scenes in largely empty offices to save money. But the film’s lack of funds caught up to it just as McNaughton really embraced the potential lunacy of the premise with the alien switching from human heads to one of a dog. The dog alien’s rampage through an upscale suburb is disappointingly abbreviated before an abrupt, unsatisfying ending forced by the constraints of the budget.

The Borrower sat on the shelf for two years after completion (not bad when you consider Henry took four years to be released) due to the production company going bankrupt. The rights were eventually bought by Cannon Films and it received a barely-there release in 1991. But even if it had been lucky enough to receive a proper release, it’s doubtful that The Borrower would have found an audience. It’s far too bizarre for the mainstream, but not quite weird or graphic enough to attract a large cult following. I was never bored while watching it, but I did find myself getting frustrated at all the missed opportunities. It’s worth a watch, but adjust your expectations.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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