Appellate Judge Tom Becker wore his Devils jersey while writing this review.
The legend of the Jersey Devil is alive.
Richard (Stephen Moyer, True Blood) is taking his family on a camping trip to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. While young son Danny (Peter DaCunha) is looking forward to the vacation, teenage daughter Sadie (Allie MacDonald, House at the End of the Street) would rather stay home.
But the trip is too important to Richard for that to happen; for one, it's a way to bring his daughter closer to his wife, Cynthia (Mia Kirshner, The Vampire Diaries); for another, Richard's going to scatter his late dad's ashes at the Barrens, since his father enjoyed similar trips when Richard was a boy.
But from the outset, things seem amiss. The family dog's gone missing, causing Danny anxiety; Richard also isn't well—he's feverish, his arm is aching, and he's having bad dreams and occasional hallucinations. On top of that, on their arrival, the first thing the family sees is an animal that seems to have had its innards ripped out! Could it be, as Richard and some other campers remind everyone, that the Barrens is home to the Jersey Devil, a presumably mythical beastie supposedly spawned by a local hussie in the 18th Century?
And could that be why other bodies…humans…keep turning up similarly eviscerated?
Or is there a more prosaic…but no less sinister…explanation?
While it's nominally a monster flick, The Barrens is less about the Garden State's scaled down, flying version of Bigfoot and more about the disintegration of Richard. A tricky, if ultimately unsatisfying mash-up of The Shining and Deliverance, The Barrens is an OK little creeper that just should have been creepier.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II) offers a fairly standard "trapped in the woods with a psycho" scenario, only this time, the psycho is actually the main character. We get a fair amount of back story, much of it parceled out throughout the film. Moyer is very good as the increasingly unhinged Richard, and Bousman moves things along with a level of restraint that might frustrate die-hard horror fans but provides for some pretty tense scenes.
Unfortunately, The Barrens never really rises above competent. Its weaknesses—including an overlong run time, supporting performances that range from bland (Kirshner) to dreadful (a campfire retelling of the Jersey Devil myth is actually painful to sit through), and a denouement that just seems to be there because it's expected to be there—tend to outweigh the film's virtues.
Bousman seems to want the audience to wrestle with the notion this might not be a monster movie at all, but he tips his hand too soon with a pre-credit sequence, plus the scene of the mauled stag. The film might have been better—or at least more interesting—had he chosen a different path.
The biggest problem with The Barrens is how typical it ends up being; it looks exactly like so many other low-budget horror movies of the past decade or so that it's visually indistinguishable from the raft of (often) straight-to-DVD fare.
Just once, I'd like to see one of these films without an abundance of digi-VFX jump cuts, which might have been compelling 15 years ago, but now just signal something akin to desperation. Seriously, Bousman has a good story and some decent actors, and the opportunity for slow-burn suspense; do we really need the dream sequences, hallucinations, and (unnecessary) flashbacks to puritan times all done in that cheesy style?
Same thing for the unending background music. There's nothing wrong with Bobby Johnston's score; it just gets too much play, and like many horror movie scores, offers too many cues. It's also occasionally distracting, as in a scene in which a ringing phone is key. You'd think that a thriller set in the woods might rely on more ambient sounds and deafening silence to create tension; wind can be much more provocative than a wind instrument.
For The Barrens (Blu-ray), we get a decent looking 1.78:1/1080p high definition image and an overall good TrueHD 5.1 surround track. Supplements include a commentary by Bousman and DP Joseph White, plus a deleted scene. There's also a DVD copy of the film.
The Barrens is an OK enough horror movie that could have been better. It's far from a loss, though, and at least worth a rental.
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