As someone who has never seen any films in the Saw franchise, I was unfamiliar with writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman until now. The legend of the Jersey Devil has been covered on both The X Files and Supernatural, so I was curious to see what a film about the creature—and one starring True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer no less—would be like. I was not disappointed.
Although The Barrens is not technically a horror film, it has elements of horror: monsters, paranoia, insanity, and just enough gore to be convincing. Unfortunately, dramatic thrillers with horror elements usually disappoint genre fans looking for scares or splatterfests. This is a shame, because The Barrens is a great movie.
The film was shot on Super 16 and the difference between this format and digital is obvious immediately. It has a wonderful gritty and grainy texture and shows off some incredible lighting set-ups to their fullest extent. My only complaint would be the overuse of flash edits in some of the scenes, but I realize that at least a few of these were necessitated by budget restraints and weather conditions.
The Barrens opens as a dysfunctional family drama with a lot of backstory that is not explained, but teased out. You know right away that something is wrong, but you don’t know what. So many modern horror films forget about this important aspect and dumb things down with a lot of pointless exposition or attempt the “art film” route by not explaining anything and forgetting about the importance of character identification.
We don’t necessarily like the main players in The Barrens—grumpy dad, annoyed stepmom, bratty teenager, worried kid—but that works in the film’s favor. It creates a sense of anxiety that escalates as things go off the rails later on. All the leads are great in their roles and it’s nice to see Moyer (with his native English accent) being a lot creepier than he is on True Blood. He’s good at it and I’d like to see him explore it in future films.
The hints dropped throughout the film keep getting recalled, with details added that only increase the sense of dread and unease about what’s actually going on. The Barrens keeps up this slowly escalating suspense remarkably well; it never pushes for an over-the-top scare when a “what the hell was THAT about?” will do just fine.
The scares evoked by the Jersey Devil, in fact, are just a backdrop for a pretty gripping, emotionally resonant family drama that will keep you guessing until the film’s last few terrific moments. If I’m being vague here, it’s on purpose. The Barrens manages to create and sustain tension, ratcheting it up gradually without resorting to a deus ex machina twist ending. To give anything more away would destroy the delicate balance it maintains.
The Barrens was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on October 9 from Anchor Bay. The Blu-Ray includes a deleted scene with commentary by director Bousman and director of photography Joe White. Bousman explains that the scene was added in to satiate the foreign market’s predicted displeasure with the film’s original, and far superior, ending.
The disc also includes a candid, eye-opening, and genuinely hilarious commentary track with Bousman and White. It’s definitely recommended, as it helps destroy the increasingly common, watered-down “auteur theory” crap to which many film fans and critics are beholden. The pair explain how changes to the film were forced upon them and where these changes worked as well as where they didn’t. Film is a collaborative process and in many instances, producer and studio demands, a dearth of money, and a lack of time will make decisions for the filmmakers no matter what their initial “vision” may have been. The commentary also reveals Bousman to be the kind of guy I wouldn’t mind hanging out with because he seems smart, down-to-earth, and fun. And he talks about his dog a lot.