There are certain expectations that one has when sitting down to view one of Lionsgate’s horror films, be it another exercise in torture horror (see the studio’s Hostel and Saw series) or an umpteenth trip down cheapie, derivative lane (see most of the company’s other horror genre output). But every once in awhile, a film can defy expectations, and Lionsgate’s Borderland is one such case.

The title card at the beginning of Borderland that informs viewers this film is based on true events is perhaps not as effective as it could or should be, at least initially, owing to the fact that so many movies in this genre rely on that old standby now. Sure doesn’t seem to be fair to the real tales of murder and mayhem out there, does it? (Though a post-viewing Google search reveals that this movie really does have its roots in truth.)

But perhaps Borderland benefits from that title card eventually — after the final credits roll practically — when it becomes clear that despite the horror movie classification of the picture, director and writer (with co-writer Eric Poppen) Zev Berman has chosen to maintain a realistic edge to the events portrayed in the film: no Jason-like resurrections here, no unlikely death toll, no clueless victims who get what they deserve for being so stupid in the face of murder and mayhem.

After a prologue that introduces us to a group of vicious killers (led by Marco Bacuzzi, who looks like a cross between Xerxes from 300 and Pluto from the original Hills Have Eyes, only scarier) who torture a pair of Mexican cops and kill one of them in particularly grisly and eye-gouging fashion, Borderland introduces its trio of protagonists: Ed (Brian Presley), Henry (Jake Muxworthy), and Phil (Rider Strong), all college graduates about to head off to grad school. But first, of course, they must make their ritualistic road trip south of the border to Mexico for a bit of hedonistic fun. Ain’t that always the way it starts?

But beyond that fairly standard setup, the story begins to take a different tact as one realizes that the killers — we know who most of them are pretty early on — aren’t really slaying all that many people (at least not during the running time of this film), and they are in fact being pretty ritualistic themselves in their murderous agenda. Ed, Henry, and Phil’s rituals just seem a lot more enjoyable.

The three dudes wind up being pretty well sketched out and likable, even if on the surface they seem like stereotypes for a slasher film (which, as stated above, this picture really turns out to not be). Ed is the easy to spot “survivor” character — the nice guy who in all likelihood will live through the events of the film. Henry is his a-hole friend who mistreats women and is essentially a lout. And Phil is the kind of dimwitted buddy who tags along for comic relief. And yet, Poppen and Berman’s script, which chooses to focus on these three guys rather than just churn out victim after victim, actually gets us to like and care for the trio, not to mention, to a lesser degree, a couple of the sexy womenfolk they meet while in Mexico (including the bartender with a heart of gold played by Martha Higareda).

Eventually though, the horror has to get started, and so innocent Phil — who manages to fall in love with a hooker he hires after one night — winds up getting kidnapped by the Mexican Xerxes/Pluto. It soon becomes clear that Xerxes/Pluto and his gang serve a higher power, or at least a lord and master who they think is a higher power, and that Phil has been penciled in as the centerpiece for some kind of occult worship service that is most likely not going to be serving the Holy Communion to the ministry. Sean Astin also shows up here in a supporting role as a nice yet nasty American expat who is now in the service of the Big Bad. Also, while Phil is being held prisoner, Astin hooks him up with a TV that shows lucha libre, which is pretty cool of him.

Eventually it all comes down to a rescue attempt by Ed and his comrades, including the surviving cop (Dami¿n Alc¿zar) from the prologue who is now a washed-up “crazy” who is nonetheless very handy to have around in a gunfight. If the film seems to peter out a bit in its final reel, that’s also owing to Berman’s intention to keep things as real as possible. And since that goal, so rare a thing in this genre these days, puts Borderland above most other horror flicks currently out there, then who can complain?