Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Review : The Barrens (2012)

A family man takes his wife and two kids on a camping trip into the wilds of New Jersey, with the intent to heal broken familial bonds and come to terms with the death of someone near and dear to him. No sooner has the fella and his tribe arrived, he starts seeing and hearing things, and comes to believe that the local legend of the 'Jersey Devil' may be much more than just a legend...

I felt a little guilty writing that synopsis. I really did. The reason why I felt so guilty is that THE BARRENS is not exactly a monster movie, and should never have been sold as one. A clearer and more accurate blurb for the film would be, 'one man goes shit-throwing crazy in the woods, while his family feel the fear'. This strange and uneven little horror tale is very much set in the genre of psychological thriller. I'm not spoiling anything for you guys, as its clear from ten minutes in that our lead is more than a little unhinged. Yes, they may or may not be a mythical beast involved, but this certainly isn't a film about said beastie. If you go in expecting the infamous Jersey Devil to be given its due, you'll be sorely dissapointed.

You have to hand it to director Bousman, (MOTHERS DAY, 11-11-11). He really does groove to his own tune. Despite flirting with the mainstream with SAW 3, he's since set out to make the movies and tell the stories that he wants to tell. It's admirable, if occasionally unsuccessful. His last film, 11-11-11, was cut off at the legs by some dreadful editing, but it it was clear that buried somewhere on the cutting room floor was a tense and original film. It shouldve been great, instead...it was a failure. THE BARRENS is certainly a good step up from that film, but we're once again faced with a work that is perhaps somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

I won't lie...when I heard about this film I envisioned a Laymonseque camping trip from hell, filled with old school violence, vicious maneaters, death by campfire and all round badassery. Thats just how my mind works. Its true that my disappointment may have colored my impression of the film, but I'm gonna try to leave this out of the equation and give this baby its dues on its own merits. Its a good film, and makes great use of a limited budget, but there are some problems...

The main problem with Bousman's latest lies in its storytelling.  It has some very accomplished performances, not least from its lead, and the entire family are interesting and likable, but something was lost in the writing. We know from the very start that the father is losing his grip on reality. Some poorly telegraphed dream sequences, ( I hate those damn things), give the game away right from the starting line, not to mention the mans propensity for looking alternately terror stricken or hate-filled, even when chilling with fellow campers and listening to some cool ghost stories. From the early scenes, we may not understand why this guy is where he is, but we see it clear as day, and it removes us from the story to find that his family seem, if not oblivious to his condition, then at least willfully blind to the severity of the poor bastards state. It seems a trite nonsensical that no one raises their arms early on in this film and procliams, 'Look man, lets just go fucking home already, and maybe fix Daddy up with a psychiatrist!'. This camping fiasco is doomed before the first sleeping bag is unrolled.

The pacing in the early scenes doesnt help either. Were it clear that this was a psychological study of dementia, then this wouldnt be a problem, but the chances are, most have come for some monster madness, and as its somewhere near forty five minutes before anything resembling real 'horror' occurs, it'll most likley leave a portion of genre viewers cold. Its a shame really, as if you stick with it, and if your aware of what your actually watching, THE BARRENS really starts to pick up in the second half. The fathers condition becomes clear and a true sense of threat enters the tale, perhaps from within the family, perhaps from without. You've come to care for this dysfunctional bunch quite a bit, and its in the finale that we get to the bloody heart of the matter. I wont say its too little too late, as the film is an accomplished work in many ways, its just that we aint getting what we paid for.

The locations that Bousman has chosen are stunning, and its in this one aspect that my expectations were fully met. I may not have gotten my cheap n cheerful Laymon style madness, but I sure as hell dug the woodland scenery. Its a truly beautiful film to look at. Despite its lack of real scares, the entire movie has the sort of killer atmosphere that you only seem to  find in 80's backwoods slashers, especially during a scene around a campfire, and the rain-soaked finale, both of which really shone. Bousman has the eye and the insight to create great horror, he just has to smooth out the editing, writing and pacing a little more.

As I write this, I'm coming to appreciate the film more for what it is. I'll be rating this one on a 'first veiwing' basis, but had my entrance to the film been of a different sort, I'm positive I would enjoy it a good deal more. In fact, I'm confident that this is a film that will be much more satisfying on second viewing than on first. Feel free to add an extra point to my rating for second viewing,

To summarize...THE BARRENS is a well told tale that simply makes the mistake of not setting its stall in the early scenes. It has bags of atmosphere, some creepy moments, great, (if occasionally overwrought), performances, and some nice twists along the way to keep you on your toes. Gore-hounds will find some kicks in the finale, and those who enjoy a good 'descent into lunacy' tale will find plenty to chew on. Is it a movie about man or monster? I ain't gonna divulge that information, but its in no way a proper look at the Jersey Devil. If you guys go in with the right attitude, you may come out pleasantly surprised. Go in with the wrong one and it may be a whole different story, much like THE BARRENS itself.

6 Gutted Deer out of 10 

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