The Barrens aspires to be more than the second-rate horror movie it looks to be at first glance, but simply comes up short of being satisfying entertainment. If one’s idea of thrilling action is to watch a fairly ordinary family wander around the woods of New Jersey for over an hour, then The Barrens is your film. Horror fans are unlikely to be satisfied by the mediocre creature FX and languid pacing. The general lack of effective drama and tension until the last act of the movie will bore everyone else who makes it to the end.
Darren Lynn Bousman has made a name for himself in the horror genre, directing several solid entries in the Saw franchise and assorted other movies. He’s both the writer and director for The Barrens, though the limited budget appears to have gone entirely to the A-list cast (at least considered A-list in the horror field). Shot on 16mm with very questionable production values, the lack of serious VFX and CGI sticks out, as the featured monster was mostly achieved on screen with practical effects. The direction tries to hide direct shots of the Jersey Devil in a series of flash cuts and fancy editing tricks until the very end, when the final reveal will be a horrible letdown for veteran genre fans.
Richard Vineyard (played by True Blood’s Stephen Moyer) takes his wife and two children out camping in the Pine Barrens, a forest park in New Jersey. He regularly camped there as a child (though repeated references to Moyer’s native British accent are inserted to explain it away) with his father. Now his father has passed away and Richard wishes to spread the ashes at a river deep in the Pine Barrens.
The movie relies so heavily on Moyer’s performance as a nervous father and jealous husband, that his over-acting almost sinks the story by itself. Moyer is the weak link in what are generally very strong acting performances by the rest of the cast. Mia Kirshner as Cynthia Vineyard plays the loving mother and supportive wife to Richard. Her performance is so good it almost balances out Moyer’s ineptitude at Richard’s slow turn to a whack job, ala Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Rounding out the Vineyard’s family are a teenage daughter Sadie (Allie McDonald) and a young son, Danny (Peter DaCunha). From the beginning, Richard starts acting a little odd as he enters the camp. His family seems oblivious at first as the teen daughter is more interested in the boys hanging around telling spooky stories. Richard begins experiencing flashbacks to his youth, where we first get a glimmer of the flying Jersey Devil, the mythical creature that roams the forests of New Jersey.
This is the stage where some horror movies would have veered in a much different direction. The intended scares in The Barrens are much more psychological in nature, as Richard can’t seem to emotionally cope as the family goes further into the woods. Dead bodies start popping up and Richard begins acting very suspiciously, as his grip on reality declines with every passing minute. Is the Jersey Devil real, or a figment of Richard’s imagination concocted to cover up his crimes?
The Barrens goes nowhere for nearly an hour before the intensity and action get ramped in the final act. The story does come together in the end to make some sense, though the twist regarding Richard’s actions is something of a cheat. A few small changes to the script could have made the movie into a family drama and the inserted horror elements are cheap and predictable.
Note: The Barrens come in a combo pack which includes both the Blu-ray and a DVD. First pressings of this edition include a slipcover.
The Barrens was shot using 16mm film and frankly looks like an amateur production at times in HD. The cinematography is darkly lit with poor shadow detail. While black levels don’t really ever get crushed, there is a distinct lack of resolved shadow delineation in the dark woods of New Jersey. Most exterior shots in the daylight aren’t that great, with poor focus and questionable detail that barely exceeds SD resolution in some scenes. Night scenes are more problematic, replete with intense grain and very poor contrast.
A few shots do demonstrate slight ringing, though the movie is so soft and flat that the ringing is the least of this movie’s picture problems. A digital intermediate was struck for The Barrens, which allows the negative to be perfectly scanned without the introduction of film debris or visual anomalies. Visible resolution though is quite poor, even taking into consideration the nature of 16mm film stock. There is very little high-frequency detail. Close-ups suffer almost as much as wider shots.
This picture quality would have been more acceptable if the film had been from totally unknown talent, but the cast and director have all been in films with Hollywood-style budgets. The expectations game hurt my opinion of the picture quality, expecting The Barrens to have better production values due to the names involved was a clear mistake.
Starz/Anchor Bay has given the movie a suitable treatment on their end. The 93-minute film is encoded in AVC, on a BD-25. The video encode operates at solid bitrates, preserving what little detail was originally captured by the 16mm camera without artifacts. The movie is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 at 1080p.
One thing this disc gets right is the strong 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. It pulls all the correct moves whenever the Jersey Devil flies across the soundstage or makes its presence known. Audio cues come from all the channels, filling the room with the realistic sounds of the forest as it sets the mood for our campers. The musical score plays nicely with body and clarity, trying to add some intensity to the drama. It’s an immersive mix that is better than this movie deserves. Dialog is clean and audible at all times.
In a movie that barely works, the only effectively scary component is the audio. Starz/ Anchor Bay has provided two subtitle options: English SDH and Spanish.
Two special features are included. The first is an audio commentary by Darren Lynn Bousman and the Director of Photography, Joseph White. It’s a candid look at the movie and both discuss the problems of the movie and its minor successes. They go back and forth over the course of the movie, covering a wide range of topical subjects related to the production.
Deleted Scene / Alternate Ending (3:25 in 1080p) – The sole video-based extra feature, it acts as a short coda to the film’s ending, intended for foreign markets and home video. It also comes with a commentary by the two same participants.
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