No offense to Darren Lynn Bousman, but I’ve never been much of a fan of his work. I never partook of the Kool-Aid imbibed by the cult of Saw devotees, found Repo: The Genetic Opera something of a chore to sit through (despite its inventive look and premise), and was disappointed with his overly sadistic, joyless remake of the classic Troma farce, Mother’s Day. When I received my review copy of The Barrens – Bousman’s take on the classic Jersey Devil mythos – I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to throw this one into my Blu-ray player for all of aforementioned reasons, plus the fact that the trailers I’d seen made it look like another in a long line of boring, cheaply made lost-in-the-woods psychological horror flicks that I’d long ago tired of. I finally relented, and on a cold, rainy Saturday evening, put in the disc, plopped down on the couch, and prepared myself for disappointment. After something of a rough start, however, The Barrens surprised the hell out of me, as not only is it a well-made, excellently acted horror film, but a true blue monster movie to boot!
The Vineyard family has had a rough go of things over the past few months, and, after the death of his father, Richard (True Blood’s Stephen Moyer) decides to take the family on a dual purpose camping trip into New Jersey’s famed Pine Barrens, where Richard hopes his family will bond as they venture to the river where he and his father used to fish in order to spread his dad’s ashes. It’s especially important to Richard that his new wife, Cynthia (Mia Kirshner), mends fences with his teenage daughter, Sadie (Allie MacDonald), while he and Cynthia’s son, Danny (Peter DaCunha), make lasting memories of their own.
The family’s trip gets off to a rocky start when, upon entering the barrens, a freshly mutilated staggers in front of their vehicle, it’s stomach torn asunder, and steaming entrails spilling out onto the dirt road. Richard tries to explain away the incident, suggesting that it was the work of hunters, but the look on his face suggests he knows something more.
The Vineyards arrive at the camping area, where Sadie immediately befriends a group of young men, much to Richard’s chagrin. His patience is further tested when he discovers that the pristine and desolate pine forest of his youth is now packed with campers, backpackers, and partying teenagers whose tents are practically stacked upon one another. It’s a far cry from the intimate trips he and his father used to take, but, as the park ranger tells him, times have changed, and not for the better. Still, Richard’s anger gets the better of him, and, when he catches his wife texting on her cellphone after explicitly stating that there would be no modern distractions on the trip, he grabs it from her and throws it into the woods.
That evening, around a communal campfire, Ryan (Eric Knudson), one of the members of the group of young revelers Sadie has gravitated toward, tells the tale of the Jersey Devil – a mythical beast that is the Pine Barrens equivalent of Bigfoot; a winged and hooved monstrosity supposedly born of a witch and her pact with the devil. The story leads to a juvenile stunt that scares young Danny, and forces an already aggravated Richard to confront Ryan and his friends. Embarrassed by her husband’s outburst, Cynthia takes Danny back to their tent, while Sadie apologizes to Ryan and his friends.
During the night, Richard awakens from a nightmare about the Jersey Devil. Unable to get back to sleep, and hoping to smooth things over with Cynthia, he tells her he’s going into the forest to search for her cellphone. It is then that he hears the distant sound of flapping wings and unearthly shrieks. Richard is suddenly paralyzed by fear as seemingly repressed memories of his youth in this forest rush back.
The next morning, Richard crawls out of his tent to find that Sadie has gone off with Ryan to search for one of his companions who, late the night prior, stumbled off drunk into the woods, and never returned. Furious, Richard informs Cynthia that they are packing up and moving to a spot deeper in the woods, away from the crowded campsite, but, as they pack up their gear, a police officer called in to help find Ryan’s friend questions Richard about his whereabouts the previous evening. Richard lies, and says he was in his tent all night. Cynthia overhears this, and, after the cop has left, asks Richard why he didn’t tell him the truth. Richard offers no explanation, however, and it is then that Cynthia begins to suspect that there’s something wrong with her husband.
When Sadie returns, the family starts their long hike into the Barrens, and, as they get further from the campsite, Richard’s behavior grows more erratic as he begins to see and hear things, but he’s determined to make it to the river where he plans to dump his father’s ashes. Soon, the skies open and, caught in a torrential downpour, the Vineyards come upon a seemingly abandoned camp where they make a gruesome discovery. It’s here where Richard, who is rapidly deteriorating both physically and mentally, shares a secret with Cynthia that forces her to make a choice between the man she loves and the survival of her and their children.
The Barrens starts off a bit slow, with a very True Blood-like credits sequence that had both my wife and I crying foul, but, while I initially thought I had this one figured out, the film suddenly kicks into gear, becoming a very effective mélange of psychological drama, survival horror, and a decidedly untraditional monster movie. I don’t mean to keep picking on Bousman, but, in his previous films, I never once found myself invested in any of the characters; with The Barrens, however, I genuinely found myself caring about their respective fates. Much of that can be attributed to the excellent performances by Moyer and the lovely Kirshner, but Bousman deserves a lot of credit for giving his actors the breathing room to truly make these characters more than just fright film cannon fodder. The film moves along at a somewhat deliberate pace, especially when compared to the director’s previous works. Some may complain that the film’s slow pace isn’t worth sitting through to what I felt was a fantastic finale, but I couldn’t disagree more. I liked getting to know these characters, and I liked the sense of tension and urgency generated by the pacing. I applaud Bousman for this low-key approach as it just feels a lot more mature and thoughtful, hinting at his growth as a director. Perhaps this is a sign that the days of Avid-vomit editing and cranked up film speeds are behind him?
Anchor Bay brings us The Barrens on Blu-ray, presented in a suitably grimy 1.78:1 print that perfectly showcases the dark and grungy aesthete of the 16mm film on which the film was shot. It’s not a pretty transfer, and it’s certainly not a film you’d use to show off your entertainment system’s capabilities, but, for the most part, it serves it purpose well. There’s a nice amount of fine detail on display, as well as a crispness to the daylight scenes, but the transfer does falter when it comes to the film’s darker moments, where excess grain and compression artifacts are readily apparent. The 5.1 True HD soundtrack is pretty solid, with occasional moments of excellence (the sound of rain in the forest, the flapping of the Devil’s wings). Dialogue is crisp and up front, the surround channels are given a good workout, and bass, while noticeably absent for much of the film, is fairly robust when it comes into play.
Extras include a very entertaining commentary track featuring Bousman and cinematographer, Joseph White, that’s both informative and very, very funny. Bousman dishes on his previous films and offers up some disarmingly frank admissions about his limitations as a director, mistakes he’s made in this film (as well as in the past), and generally comes off as an extremely humble, likeable fellow. White, meanwhile, offers up some technical nuggets photography fans will enjoy, and serves as a good sounding board for Bousman’s exuberant anecdotes.
Other extras include a single deleted scene (HD), as well as trailers for other Anchor Bay releases (HD). Also included is a copy of the film on DVD.
The Barrens is a surprisingly engrossing film that strikes a great balance between psychological thriller and monster flick, featuring really impressive performances from Moyer and Kirshner, and showcasing much more confident and assured direction by Bousman. While some may be put off by the film’s pacing, I found it served the story (and payoff) well, giving us time to get to know and become invested in its characters. Recommended!