Movies steeped in myth and urban legend often have a sort of built-in audience. Drop a name like Bigfoot, chupacabra or even the Jersey Devil, and chances are someone knows someone whose uncle thinks he's seen one wandering around at night. Urban legends are what movies strive to be: cultural sensations that resonate long after their initial introduction. In that regard, it's no wonder horror director Darren Lynn Bousman would find the topic of the Jersey Devil an appealing subject for his latest low-budget horror film, 'The Barrens.'
The most interesting aspect of Bousman's effort, however, is that, with 'The Barrens,' he hasn't really made a straight-up horror film at all – at least not in the manner one would expect from the man who helmed 'Saw II-IV,' 'Mother's Day' and 'The Devil's Carnival.' Then again, considering Bousman's 'Repo! The Genetic Opera,' it's clear the director has developed an inclination toward material with a little more originality than mere sequels, reboots or the latest PG-13 remake of '80s trash-horror have to offer, so the fuzzy genre line presented in this slow-burn Jersey Devil feature may just be another step in the filmmaker's maturation. The result is a film aiming to build tension in preparation for an immense finale, but much of the apprehension is undermined with a not-quite-consistent series of red herrings and jump-scares that seem to work against the conceit of the film and Bousman's intentions for it.
'The Barrens' sets itself up in classic horror style: Family man Richard Vineyard (Stephen Moyer) attempts to embark on a four-day camping trip with his second wife Cynthia (Mia Kirshner), their son Danny (Peter DaCunha), and Richard's daughter from his first marriage, Sadie (Allie MacDonald). Richard's objectives for the weekend are to bring what appears to be a somewhat fractured family closer together, and spread his late (how recently, we don't know) father's ashes along the river they used to fish at when Richard was a child. It's difficult to hear someone speak of the Pine Barrens and not immediately think of 'The Sopranos,' (thanks for that, David Chase), but here, the proceedings unfold with a decidedly more supernatural flare.
Once the Vineyards get into the forest, they spend much of their family time with the dozens of other families all "camping" in the Barrens at the same time. The result of all this New Jersey outdoor traffic is a decidedly anti-camping experience, and more like Woodstock without any of the music or illicit drug use. The first night, as the newly formed outdoor community gathers around a single fire, some kids (played by Eric Knudsen and Max Topplin of 'Youth in Revolt' and 'Suits,' respectively) regale the group with the legend of the Jersey Devil. It's a slightly different iteration, but the details aren't as imperative to the narrative as they are a subtle nod at the way myths were shared and sustained. The importance of an old legend being reborn via one young man's oration around a communal fire is certainly not lost here.
Sadly, though it touches on the idea briefly, 'The Barrens' has neither the time, nor, really, the inclination to delve into matters of oral history and the importance of community in regards to the perpetuation of legend and myth. Instead, the film sets its sights on the downfall of the Vineyards.
Most everyone in the Vineyard clan fits into the usual family dynamic we see in other films – particularly Sadie, who falls into the conventional smartphone-obsessed belligerent teen-with boys-on-the-brain category. And this is where 'The Barrens' first begins to stumble. As the story of are they or are they not being stalked by the actual Jersey Devil begins to unfold, and larger questions of Richard's sanity begin to present themselves, either the script or editing choices leave the audience with a somewhat bewildering set of characters and shifting personalities that would make Sybil stand up and take notice. Characters are often inconsistent; personalities swing wildly from meek to bold and disrespectful to overly accommodating, seemingly to fit the needs of the scene at hand. Meanwhile, the only character this personality shift should be present in is Richard.
The question 'The Barrens' seeks to pose concerns Richard's well being. Is he actually seeing the legendary beast, or is some other affliction causing him to gradually lose his mind? There are hints of 'The Shining' in Richard's gradual instability, but the script attempts to have it both ways by presenting a scientific reasoning for his decline, and a supernatural explanation that comes complete with flashbacks and dream sequences.
Though there are some nice visual set-ups, the story is largely undone by Richard's flashbacks, visions and dreams that suggest a past connection to the Barrens and the Jersey Devil itself. The film attempts to strike a chord, asking the audience to contemplate which is the true monster, but the flimsy backstory only works to halt the progression of what could have been a compelling mystery.
While the film as a whole doesn't quite work, Bousman's script benefits greatly from a talented cast who are capable of selling their performances without a wink of irony or tonal shift that would belie the film's other competent aspects. Fans of 'True Blood' will not only get to hear Stephen Moyer with his normal English accent, but they will also get to see much more of the actor's range. Additionally, much of the film is further enhanced by the believability of Moyer and Kirshner's relationship, and the tenuous one she shares with her stepdaughter Sadie. To that end, 'The Barrens' boasts a young actress in Allie MacDonald and an even younger actor in Peter DaCunha who both manage to be convincing in their roles without falling into the all too common trope of "annoyingly precocious child."
Despite strong performances, the film ultimately proves that utilizing legends and myths can be worthwhile, as long as the reveal proves interesting. In the end, whether it is psychological terror or the supernatural brought to life, 'The Barrens' takes too long to develop into something truly frightening or evocative of the films it's clearly borrowing from. By that time, the tension has snapped, resulting in a denouement that, despite the well-executed abruptness, largely falls flat. It's an interesting concept, and a journey that is handled skillfully, but in the end, it feels like it may have been a trip to nowhere.
Shot on Super 16mm, the look of 'The Barrens' might be its second strongest selling point. In looking like an old '70s or '80s horror film, it earns a lot of credibility that many of its high-def digital counterparts lack. This is not a slick, state of the art picture; it's dark, grainy and well suited to the kind of story Bousman is attempting to tell.
While the picture has a nice grain to it – which grants it a more distinct filmic look – there are some sacrifices that come with such a style. Though it's presented well, the overall quality of the image is low in terms of fine detail in things like faces and environments, although there are some instances where the transfer is able to reproduce a surprising amount of detail in an actor's face, or in the Canadian wilderness posing as southern New Jersey. While it may be lacking in an over abundance of fine detail, the image does boast a rather robust color palette that highlights the earthy greens of the forest and the crimson hues of the rather abundant blood in the film.
Surprisingly, there is decent detail during most of the night scenes, though, ironically, those taking place during the day tend to have whites that bloom a bit more than they should. This may be due to the fact that much of the daytime scenes were actually shot at night, and were merely lit to convey a different hour. Overall, though contrast is high throughout the picture, blacks register deep and inky, and aside from the occasional bloom, most of the whites come through looking natural and even.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track does exactly what it's supposed to do with a film of this nature. Audio cues are represented strongly on the disc's soundtrack, leading the viewer with a mix of musical score and inevitable sound effects, or screams – all of which come through with great precision.
The front channels handle the majority of the film's score and dialogue, pushing them through with superb balance that never allows one to overshadow the other. Rear channels are used to good effect, with atmospheric sounds adding to the overall immersive quality that is so necessary in horror productions such as this. While the front speakers handle the majority of the score, it does occasionally come across in the rear channels – though that doesn't have much of an ill effect on the way the disc sounds. LFE is richly represented in both the film's score and in its use of sound effects, and comes through the front channels sounding appropriately deep.
Overall, the dialogue is the most important aspect of a film such as this, and though it was done on a very low budget, 'The Barrens' manages to make the actors' voices a priority without skimping on all the other things that make for a well-rounded horror experience.
There is no doubt that Darren Lynn Bousman is a capable filmmaker, and while his box office track record has declined since the heyday of the 'Saw' franchise, his pursuit of crafting more original material such as this suggests sooner or later, he'll find a story and setting that will once again register with audiences. This film looks every bit the low-budget indie that Bousman describes in the commentary. While it doesn't quite work out the way the director had intended, it is filled with very good actors who do a commendable job on what must have been a short and difficult shoot. Learning that Bousman managed to put this together in the span of 20 days (or less, as he claims), makes 'The Barrens' feel like a film that should be watched for that reason alone. So while the film struggles to find the right balance between psychological thriller and creature feature, it's worth a look for those who are either fans of Moyer, or are willing to give a low-budget horror flick a shot out of respect for simply trying.