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The Jersey Devil is a fun crytozoological critter to
consider, and fortunately, Darren Lynn Bousman’s THE BARRENS (out tomorrow on
DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo from Anchor Bay) has managed to utilize the beast to
become something rare these days: an original creature feature that respects
both its characters and audience…for the most part.
Richard Vineyard, played by Stephen Moyer (TRUE BLOOD’s
Bill), takes his weirded-out family to the infamous Pine Barrens—where the N.J.
Devil is said to roam—for a trip that’s supposed to help heal some mysterious
emotional wounds that have put a strain on everyone. Stepmom (Mia Kirshner) and
teenage daughter (Allie MacDonald) don’t get along, and the enigmatic
6-year-old son (Peter DaCunha) has lost his dog, which they’ve been trying very
hard to find. The getaway turns out to suck: All Richard wants is to get back
to the great outdoors he once enjoyed with his old man, but instead, the
crowded campsite has become a haven for tourists—all young, loud and obnoxious,
fiddling with their phones and playing a loud racket. Richard immediately
starts having flashbacks and bizarre panic attacks.
From the trailer, I have to admit I was anticipating a
ripoff of THE SHINING; what I got was almost more of an ANTICHRIST Lite by way
of a NIGHT SHIFT-era Stephen King short story. Yeah, there is some Jack
Torrance stuff that goes down (Dad scares family), but Moyer plays his
deterioration as more painful and confused than Jack Nicholson’s zany madman.
Indeed, while every character had the potential to be annoying—the flick
requires much crying, screaming, running and falling—everyone does their best
to keep the shrillness factor in check, which means you can stay in the story
without plugging your ears or wishing the worst for anyone.
The script contains some clever tricks that are appreciated,
and I’m talking more twists than jump-scares. Then you have the red stuff:
Shredded animals and humans pop up throughout. Like a few other bits I won’t
spoil, these could’ve been rendered impotent by absurd CGI, but instead,
practical FX are employed as much as possible, and for that, I’m very grateful.
Writer/director Bousman and cinematographer Joseph White’s camera really
doesn’t stop moving, putting you in Richard’s addled shoes without getting too
nauseating or headache-inducing (à la certain SAW sequences). I also truly
appreciated the audio design—the sound of a dead animal being pushed into water
is still haunting me the morning after sitting with the flick.
There are only a few odd choices that throw things off. A
wonderfully eerie and well-done intro is immediately followed by a horribly
embarrassing TRUE BLOOD-style title sequence. Like, someone needs to be put in
a corner for those credits—then whacked by Rustin Parr/the Blair Witch. There
are a few scenes involving less-than-convincing intestines, but hey,
intestines! Hooray! Lastly, the score by Bobby Johnston (KING OF THE ANTS,
MOTHER’S DAY) constantly permeates the soundscape, heavily evoking Nathan
Barr’s work on TRUE BLOOD, and the bending violins start to distract rather
than enhance. I may sound like a broken record here, but it’s very difficult to
soak in that score while watching Moyer do his best not to be Bill.
As for the special features, we’re given a commentary track
with Bousman and White, as well as a single deleted scene—a wisely discarded
alternate ending for the foreign release. A commentary with the two gents for
this conclusion is worth a look ’n’ listen for anyone with a morbid interest in
silly, tacked-on final “tags” that are felt necessary for certain audiences
(THE DESCENT come to mind, though in this scenario, it’s the opposite—the more
effective ending was left alone for U.S. audiences, for a change). The
full-length commentary reveals that Bousman has been trying to get this little
flick made ever since he did SAW II, and that it was filmed in Toronto instead
of on the legendary N.J. monster’s true stamping grounds. White had spent time
in the Barrens as a youth, and had to consult with Bousman, who was dedicated
to representing the landscape accurately.
The two also note that this was certainly intended to be a
losing-your-mind movie rather than a jump-scare flick, and they do bring up THE
SHINING and JAWS as influences—which is appreciated, as they cannot be denied.
Bousman and White also poke fun at the fact that the former, coming off of his
ridiculously successful stint participating in the SAW franchise, hooked up
with the latter to make the subsequent MOTHER’S DAY and BARRENS, which saw
Bousman go from 3,000-screen releases to 30-screen releases to “10-screen
releases to four-screen releases now—to [THE BARRENS’] zero-screen release.”
Speaking of figures, the shoot was cut from 31 days to 20, and all the
difficulties (notably relentless rain) throughout are as lovingly recollected
here as possible. The duo seem to have survived, though the jovial Bousman
seems a bit worse for wear (in addition to the emotional fatigue of the film,
he admits to having just gotten off a plane) and isn’t too sure Moyer “will
ever talk to [him] again,” as they both had higher hopes for the film.
This, of course, is the best kind of commentary: brutally
honest, humbled and inspiring. Making movies isn’t easy—duh—but as Bousman puts
it, “There’s two ways to do a commentary. There’s the bullshit version where
you can tell everyone, ‘Oh, we shot this on a 35mm blah, blah, blah…’ or you
can tell the hardships and struggles, because I think as a filmmaker, that’s
what I wanna know.” Correctamundo—that goes for the audience, too. It’s
difficult to get into many more specifics that the pair discuss without
spilling some spiffy beans, but I was tickled to learn that medical accuracy
was adhered to. And that, in a film about a tortured family and a winged
demon-beast, a fart machine was used to evoke a reaction or two.
DVD/ Blu-ray Reviews
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