Deadland review – melancholy horror smuggles deep themes across the US-Mexico border

<span>Spooked … Roberto Urbina in Deadland</span><span>Photograph: Film PR handout undefined</span>
Spooked … Roberto Urbina in DeadlandPhotograph: Film PR handout undefined

Screened at SXSW last year but still relevant given the ongoing debate about immigration in the US, an especially live issue in election year, this offers a border-set ghost story that’s haunting in more ways than one. For a start, it’s not especially gory or scary; the tone is more melancholy and guilt-freighted, offering a study of masculine and, in particular, paternal anxiety that’s aggravated by divided loyalties. The main protagonist is Angel Waters (Roberto Urbina), a Mexican-American border guard who is the head of his small patrol unit not far from El Paso.

The son of a Mexican father he never knew and a white American woman who has recently died, Angel is now devoted to his pregnant wife Hannah (Kendal Rae, achieving a lot with a thinly written part); he only wants to do the best he can for the people who cross the border every day, even if he’s seldom thanked for sometimes saving their lives. For example, one day he shouts warnings in Spanish that the river isn’t safe to a lone stranger (Julio Cesar Cedillo) he spots trying to cross, and minutes later the man is swept away.

Angel finds what appears to be the man’s body downriver, puts it in a body bag and heads for headquarters, only for the corpse to revivify itself and demand he be taken to El Paso where some people need him. Angel is called away by Hannah to deal with an old man (Manuel Uriza) who claims to be Angel’s father, now broken out of a psychiatric hospital and ranting about trees and their mirroring system of roots underground, a potent metaphor throughout. Are the two strangers related in some way? And is the latter one his father, or perhaps the other guy, or neither?

The plot thickens after violent events, and writer-director Lance Larson, making his feature debut here after cranking out several shorts, blends in issues around racism, border policy, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. And yet the script, credited to Larson and cinematographer Jas Shelton, whose imagery is often breathtaking, seldom feels heavy-handed or too freighted with authors’ messages. It’s a textbook example of horror tropes being used to smuggle in deeper themes, while still providing a fair few entertaining jump scares and spooky vibes.

• Deadland is on UK and Irish digital platforms from 24 June.