“And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks.”
With this ominous, quasi-Biblical quote does Borgman begin. That’s the best explanation we get for the terrifyingly enigmatic actions of its eponymous lead character and his followers. After those words fade, we see a priest and some helpers set about digging into the ground. They unearth a series of buried lairs, and filthy, scraggly people go running out of them. One of them, a man who looks like the archetype of stranger danger (Jan Bijvoet), flees to a secluded, upscale neighborhood. He knocks on doors, asking to have a bath, seeing who will take him in. Eventually, he incites a pummeling from the volatile Richard (Jeroen Perceval), whose wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) then allows him to live in their guest house out of pity.
The man says his name is Camiel Borgman. But he’s not a man. We don’t know what he is, but he and his freshly unearthed companions slowly insinuate themselves into this household. They kill the gardener and his wife so that they can take their places. They pull some kind of wordless spell over Marina and Richard’s three young children, making them emotionlessly violent. One of them seduces the nanny. And at night, Borgman crouches over Marina as she sleeps and seems to will nightmares into her head. It’s appears to be a reference to a famous Fuseli painting, another hint that Borgman and his ilk are demonic in nature.
Borgman, a Dutch import, is a home infection thriller. There’s no vicious break-in, no people in creepy masks stalking the hapless victims. It’s a slow-burn, as the intruders don’t even seem to be intruders, and gradually make their prey like them, or prepare to kill the ones they aren’t interested in making like them. It’s infused with the feeling of a fable, and seems like a tale that could be told on a 16th century woodcut. The monsters abide by ineffable, arbitrary customs. Like many lurkers from folklore, they seem to be unable to enter a house unless they’re invited. And like in the old tales, they reflect the darkness in people’s hearts.
Class anxiety runs through this film. Marina stresses over how much better she has it than most people, while Richard is a shameless corporate douche. The intrusion of Borgman and his friends unravels their meticulously constructed world of comfort. The impeccably clean house, made only of harsh angles, stands in contrast to the mess Borgman and his fellow “gardeners” make in the back yard as they work. It’s not an uncommon to feature the rot of suburban life as a theme, but no movie has handled it quite like this one.
Borgman is an unnerving yet strangely funny experience. The humor is grim and bleak, but you can’t help but laugh at the image of bodies concealed in a lake by having their heads put in pots filled with concrete, sinking to the bottom and swaying so strangely. At the center of it all is Bijvoet’s magnetic presence. Marina’s slow, strange gravitation towards him feels completely believable, in spite of all the horror around them. And everything culminates in a matter-of-fact but still terrifying resolution, one that will have viewers arguing over what it all means for a long time. This is a beautifully eerie film.
Borgman is in select theaters June 6th.