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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

THE BARRENS -- DVD review by porfle

Is it a supernatural horror film?  Or is writer-director Darren Lynn Bousman (SAW II-IV) pulling the old dipsy-doodle on us by making us think it is and then rationally explaining everything at the last minute? 

That's what you may be trying to decide while watching THE BARRENS (2012), which has all the ingredients of a supernatural horror film but tries out a different recipe than usual.  It begins with your standard "couple stalked and killed in the woods by an unseen beast" pre-titles sequence--could be a bear, or, as the title graphics suggest, it could be...the Jersey Devil. 

Well, as soon as we cut to the Vineyard family getting ready to go on a camping trip, we pretty much know that they're going to find out for themselves one way or another before this thing's over.  Richard (Stephen Moyer, "True Blood") is one of those dads who wants his kids to experience the joys of camping whether they like it or not because, damn it, he and his dad had such a great time when he was a kid.
His wife Cynthia, one of those eager stepmoms still trying to win over her new husband's kids, is played by Mia Kirshner, and it's funny seeing her in this kind of role since I still think of her as the teenage bad girl in the unjustly-maligned NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE.  She does a fine job, though--her emoting later on in the movie is very good as is that of co-star Moyer.

Peter DaCunha plays Danny, a whimpery little boy still pining over his missing dog Oscar, and Allie MacDonald (HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET) is teen daughter Sadie, who really, really doesn't want to go camping.  Maybe it's my age showing, but I'm starting to really hate the snotty teenage characters in these movies who don't want to go on the family camping trip.

Then again, considering how high-strung Dad turns out to be, I think I'd opt to stay home myself.  For some reason, and we suspect it has something to do with what happened when he was a kid, Richard starts to freak out as soon as they enter the park area and find themselves elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of other campers, including some horny young boys who take an interest in Sadie.  By the time he makes the family trudge miles deeper into the woods looking for a more secluded campsite, he's starting to get scarier than whatever's lurking around out there.

What's wrong with Dad?  Does he really think that the Jersey Devil's out there in the woods and is coming to get them?  Or is there something even more sinister going on in his rapidly-deteriorating mind?  There are some teasing glimpses of a misshapen monster (along with some pretty nice cinematography, especially in scenes of a fog-shrouded forest) but we never know if they're real or just images in Richard's fevered imagination. 

The suspense begins to build when his mental state makes him a clear and present danger to everyone in his family, as much or more so in his own way than Jack Torrence in THE SHINING.  And director Bousman does manage to ratchet up the tension as his film builds inexorably to its very dramatic (and startlingly abrupt) conclusion.  By now, I wasn't sure if I wanted a supernatural basis for what was going on or not--it would certainly work that way, yet, unlike in Tod Browning's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, a rational explanation wouldn't seem like so much of a cheat in this case because it would be bizarre enough in itself. 

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Bonus features consist of a commentary track with director Bousman and director of photography Joseph White, and a deleted ending (added for the overseas version) that clears up much of what is left hanging in the original cut.

Real or fake?  You'll be wondering this about the Jersey Devil up until the final frames of THE BARRENS, a fairly entertaining little horror flick that held my interest despite being a rather unpleasant experience.  One thing's for sure--there is a monster in the film, but you'll have to see for yourself if it's a winged, mythical beast, or just dear ol' Dad.

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