Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
You turn on the Blu-ray and find yourself confronted with a main menu featuring flitting images that provide glimpses of a large, toothy beast menacing several frightened folks running about in a dark forest. The creature roars, flashing a maw full of pointy fangs dripping with ropey saliva. It snaps its jaws at a man who looks suspiciously like that Southern vampire fella from “True Blood” and stands quite a bit taller than him as well. Knowing little about the film, you press play and find yourself in a movie that quickly references witchcraft and the Jersey Devil.
At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve settled in to check out a creature feature. In fact, you’re about to watch more of a domestic drama concerning an unstable family led by an increasingly unhinged patriarch rather than a B-movie concerned with witches, monsters, or urban legends.
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the talented filmmaker who gave us the best of the Saw sequels, the cult hit Repo!, and the super-intense Mother’s Day, The Barrens concerns the Vineyard family: father Richard (Moyer); teenage daughter Sadie (MacDonald); Richard’s new wife and Sadie’s stepmother Cynthia (Kirshner); and Cynthia’s own son Danny (DaCunha). Newly formed, this family is having a hard time connecting so Richard hits upon the notion of packing up his brood and heading into the Pine Barrens for a weekend of camping, fishing, and all-around together time.
What Richard doesn’t expect is to confront a half-mauled deer on his way to their campsite. Bambi’s shuddering near corpse appears to have had large chunks taken out of it by something…large. Undeterred, the family members make their way to the campground for a weekend of roughing it, only to discover the grounds overrun by people toting laptops, portable televisions, and smartphones. Roughing it, indeed.
Agitated by this turn of events, and unsettled by a campfire tale concerning the local legend of the Jersey Devil, Richard packs up his family and travels deeper into the forest, intending to isolate his unit to help them better bond with each other. Unfortunately, something seems to be trailing behind them, stalking them, leaving behind a swath of bloodshed in its wake. Something which may not be human. And it doesn’t help that Richard seems to be growing more and more ill and irate as the trip moves further along, frightening his family and calling into question the man’s very sanity.
Aaaand, here’s where I’ll leave the plot alone. The film does a fantastic job of setting up one type of story, only to provide clues that you may be watching an entirely different flick altogether. I’ll say no more, for fear of spoiling the film for those who wish to check it out.
What I can discuss is the work of the actors, who all do a fine job. Moyer steps out from underneath the shadow that his HBO vampire series has cast over him and manages to play a role that has him stretching some acting muscles he seldom seems allowed to use. His performance, as a loving family man who slowly begins to lose touch with reality, is really fantastic. He manages to keep his character sympathetic, even as he becomes increasingly threatening to those around him. I hope to see more performances like this from the actor, and here’s hoping that he’s granted the opportunities to give them.
Kirshner, already somewhat of a genre vet with her roles in The Crow: City of Angels, The Black Dahlia, and television’s “The Vampire Diaries”, does a fine job as Cynthia, a woman trying desperately to support her husband and protect her family, even as those goals eventually become diametrically opposed. When things go to hell in the final act, Kirshner does a wonderful job picking up the baton and becoming the film’s hero (for a while, anyway).
Also great are both MacDonald and DaCunha, playing the bratty teenager and precocious child, respectively. Those archetypes typically seem hard to pull off without being insanely annoying, but the young actors are more than up to the task. The film’s climax relies heavily on their work, and they don’t let the movie down.
Director Bousman does a fine job with wrangling his cast. And, as always, he has a great eye and feel for pacing. In fact, the film’s editing recalls his recent Mother’s Day more so than the manic cutting seen in his Saw films. And, as writer, Bousman has come up with a creepy concept and an interesting take on an enduring urban legend.
A pity, then, that the movie doesn’t quite work. As noted, the story, filmmaking, and acting are all fine. But, for whatever reason, it lacks any sort of tension whatsoever. For a film concerning a giant, winged hell creature and a potentially homicidal lunatic, the intensity should have been oozing from the screen. Instead, The Barrens just kinda…lays there. While I’m all for character-driven flicks and slow-burn horror, I simply didn’t seen any moments that were successful in creating the sort of dread we expect from a tale like this. A shame, considering that Bousman is usually a deft hand with creating white knuckles with his movies.
In addition, the film’s ending leaves a bit to be desired. While its ultimate revelation is satisfyingly surprising, the climax is cut far too short. Seriously, it’s an ending of the “Oh, come on!” variety, which will have you launching the nearest object at your television set as the credits roll. Still, it’s hard to dismiss the film entirely for these two (considerable) faults, considering the amount of virtues it has otherwise.
Anchor Bay has sadly dropped the ball with its handling of this title on Blu. The image is astonishingly piss poor. Washed out blacks, loads of noise in darker scenes. Hell, there’s loads of noise in the daylight exteriors as well. To be fair, the look may be due to the way the flick was photographed, but I seriously get the feeling that this otherwise well made movie was given the shaft when it came time to transfer it to disc.
Faring somewhat better is the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. The audio is crystal clear, with crisp dialogue and music. Unfortunately, there are scenes where a more dynamic track would have been preferred to what we ultimately have. Still, it gets the job done.
The bonus features are rather sparse. We get an audio commentary with Bousman and Joseph White, his D.P. There is also a deleted scene, which is actually more of an epilogue to the film. On the optional commentary track for this scene, Bousman notes that it was shot specifically for foreign markets, well after production had ended (and without White, who also comments on the scene). Bousman seems not to care much for the scene and prefers his rather clipped ending to the talky finale provided here. A pity, as this writer found the scene to be a more satisfying bit of closure, while still providing an open door for a potential sequel.
Overall, while I have my issues with The Barrens, I can’t quite warn anyone away from watching it. It’s certainly well made and well acted. And the story is an interesting one, full of twists and turns this reviewer wasn’t expecting. If you’re a fan of Bousman’s work, this may be worth a look for you, so long as you keep your expectations somewhat low.
2 1/2 out of 5
1 1/2 out of 5