OCTOBER 1, 2012
I actually have a copy of The Barrens sitting on my coffee table, but knowing that it was shot on Super 16, and that the Mann's Chinese is one of the few theaters in town still showing films on FILM instead of digital, I was hoping I could see it "proper" (plus I just like watching stuff in theaters anyway). Alas, it was, I think, the same damn blu-ray I have at home, or at least a not particularly good DCP. Luckily, Anchor Bay only released the film on like 2 screens, so most folks will see it on the Blu-ray, which looks fine on a television where it's meant to be seen.
Anyway, good flick. I'm always down for a "is he crazy or is there a monster" plot, as long as the ambiguity is handled well and they give you plenty of evidence to support either theory, and I'm happy to report that is the case here. There's an unexplained bit with a knife, but otherwise the ultimate answer works without betraying the film's logic, or (worse) cheating by showing us things that couldn't have been happened. I might argue that it would have been fun to have the answer revealed a few minutes earlier just so there could be a bigger finale, but on the other hand I admired Darren Bousman's ability to string us along until the very last second - most films would have collapsed by now.
Plus it looks awesome, courtesy of that glorious Super 16. It's grainy as hell, and the perpetually overcast weather in the forest where it was shot gives it a terrific look, reminding me of those weekends I'd spend in Maine when it would rain out, keeping us from the beach and sort of stuck in our camper playing board games or whatever; I wouldn't call the film "cold" so much as "DAMP". It's a DAMP looking movie, and I liked it. The protagonists barely ever get to have a nice moment anyway, so the look befits the mood quite well.
As for the family, it's another stepmom with hateful daughter scenario, which I'm a bit tired of seeing. I mean, teen girls tend to hate both their parents anyway, so why the constant need to have the extra bit of tension? That said, at least the matriarch (Mia Kirshner*, as lovely as ever) is the biological mother of the younger child, so it's not a constant "I have to win over my new family" thing like usual - she's more or less resigned to the fact that they're not in sync, and thus can focus on more pressing matters, like the fact that her husband may be a psychotic.
The hubby is played by Stephen Moyer from True Blood, and for a change he gets to use his real life (British) accent. He's in nearly every frame of the movie (one exception is a really awkward scene where the daughter and her new male friend are walking and he suddenly gives some exposition that we get again in a few minutes anyway), and does a fine job at playing a guy who is obviously got something bubbling under. It's not hard to figure out what's going on or even how it happened, but it's something I haven't seen in too many movies, and I've NEVER seen it as the engine for a slow burn psychological horror film.
And yes, SLOW burn. In order to preserve the mystery of who is responsible for the deaths of some campers early on and a couple others throughout the film, just about all of the action is off-screen, with only a few flashbacks and nightmare scenes (or hallucinations) providing monster action until the final moments. I haven't seen a trailer (and it's oddly not included on the DVD/Blu-ray), so I can assume that these shots all make it in there to sell it as a full blown Jersey Devil monster movie, which of course will just piss everyone off when they realize it's more like The Shining than Razorback.
Instead, the Blu (which I went home and opened, an odd thing to do after a theatrical viewing of a film) has a deleted scene that's actually an extended ending, showing what happened during the final attack (it's left ambiguous in the film), so that's good if you're pissed off by the abrupt cut to credits. Commentary by Bousman and DP Joe White explain that he cut it because he wanted it ambiguous, but he was forced to shoot the scene for certain foreign markets. So this is the Twin Peaks pilot of Jersey Devil movies, I guess.
They also provide a full length commentary, which isn't very screen specific as the pair (mostly Bousman) explain why the film wasn't shot in the actual Pine Barrens in New Jersey, why the monster isn't seen much, why some minor subplots were dropped... and it all comes down to the same answer: money and time. They had an opportunity to make the movie under less than ideal circumstances, and after years of trying to get it off the ground (he's been kicking around the idea since Saw II), he opted to take the chance when he had it rather than wait for a better one that may never come. So scenes were lost, no one had a lot of time to prep the film (or edit it), and they had to battle the temperamental Toronto weather, which would cause scores of continuity problems that they simply couldn't avoid (watch for someone saying "We need to get there before it starts to rain" when we can see rain drizzling around them). He also discusses the film's less than glorious release (the commentary was recorded a few weeks ago, when the extent of its theatrical release was already decided), and how he feels bad for Moyer, who delivers a great performance that deserves to be seen. However, he has a sense of humor about it all (it's not new, as all of his post Saw films were dumped in some way), and there's enough info about this actual movie to make it worthwhile, including info on a goofy subplot that was nixed involving the sheriff's coffee.
It's a shame he had to compromise some of his ideas in order to get ANY version of the movie made after six years of trying, but what he got still works. I dug the final answer (and how it's revealed), and the old-school look of the film (plus the terrific, Suspiria-esque score) made this 70s horror fan very happy. And as long as you go in knowing it's not a monster movie, I think you'll find it enjoyable as well. Certainly better than The Last Broadcast, at any rate.
What say you?
*Along with the former Mandy, the hero's daughter is menaced by a cougar at one point, making this movie a bit of an ode to 24.