Written and Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Stephen Moyer, Mia Kirshner and Allie MacDonald
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The legend of the Jersey Devil is alive.
Despite its place as one of Americaís most popular and enduring local legends, The Jersey Devil hasnít been mined very much for horror films. It was the subject of The Last Broadcast, but that film is now mostly remembered for being a found footage precursor to The Blair Witch Project, and a couple other forgettable films have tackled the material since. Still, itís a legend thatís hardly been done justice, and whatever is supposed to be living out in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey is practically begging for a definitive take. Darren Lynn Bousman would be a good candidate to deliver that, but The Barrens is an unfortunate bait and switch that bungles its intriguing setup and degenerates into a muddled, predictable routine.
As a child, Richard Vineyard (Stephen Moyer) frequented the Pine Barrens on camping trips with his recently-deceased father. Now that heís got a family of his own, heís decided to take them to the same spot for a weekend retreat; upon returning, heís dismayed to discover itís not the idyllic haunt from his youth, as itís now crowded with dozens of families who seemingly donít appreciate the value of a retreat from modern technological trappings. Among this crowd, the Jersey Devil of course lingers as campfire lore, but, for Richard, itís something thatís terribly real, or at least thatís what he thinks. When some fellow campers begin to disappear, heís convinced the Devil has arrived to claim another round of victims.
This may not be the case, however, as Richard slowly becomes unhinged, so the film largely abandons its supernatural setup in favor of another woodsy psycho-drama that leaves the status of the Jersey Devil somewhat ambiguous--is it just a figment of a man losing his mind, or is it really out there? The Barrens almost thoroughly proceeds as the former, so much so that itís disappointingly bereft of the hook that initially draws you in. Such a move wouldnít be so bad if this were a case of misleading marketing, but the film itself sets up something thatís barely delivered. Some of the most effective moments come when the film delves into the Jersey Devil mythos via a campfire tale that highlights the moody atmospherics the film supplies, and it comes replete with stylish, visually rich flashbacks.
Unfortunately, the shift in gears canít quite keep up the intrigue; the decision to shift isnít inherently bad, but the drama here is tepid and rote, as Richard begins to terrorize his own family. Think The Shining by way of Blair Witch, only a centuries-old beast might be out on the prowl as well. Everyone involved gives serviceable performances, and Moyerís transformation from good-natured family man to deranged psycho is effective enough; itís a little disconcerting to see Mia Kirshner slipping into middle-aged housewife roles, but sheís well-acquitted, even if some of her interactions with Moyer are a little soppy. Allie MacDonald is a typically mouthy teenage girl who doesnít want to go on the camping trip in the first place (and of course a fellow male camper catches her eye, much to her fatherís dismay), while Peter DaCunha is the young son still reeling from the disappearance of the family dog. On the whole, the Vineyards are decent human beings that would make for good victims in a creature feature; instead, theyíre stuck in an entirely different sort of movie that isnít as interesting as the one it initially appears to be.
Maybe itís a little unfair to keep harping on that fact; after all, The Barrens is still fine, if not forgettable. Itís moderately intense, and Bousman is more than capable of helming a production; his post-Saw career has seen him separate himself from that franchise, which only asked him to mimic the house style. The Barrens offers more proof that he has moved beyond the grungy, gore-filled, and hyperkinetic Saw aesthetic; while itís not quite as atmospheric as 11-11-11, the director (and production designer David Hackl, who took the Saw reigns after Bousman) make great use of the naturally creepy Canadian wilderness thatís subbing for the Pine Barrens. You just wish they had committed to sticking a monster in there for the duration, especially since youíre never all that convinced that there isnít an actual Jersey Devil anyway (an unconnected prologue featuring Shawn Ashmore indicates that something is surely out there). Bousman doesnít leave his gore-soaked days behind, either, as The Barrens is lined with a number of human and animal carcasses, most of which have been shorn of their intestines. Most of the effects (including the creature) are practical and convincing, a nice change of pace since so many recent films out of this mold have taken the digital route.
Even ignoring the filmís uneven focus, itís hard to get worked up either way about The Barrens. Had the Jersey Devil mythos not been introduced, this would just be another solid but unremarkable psychological thriller; however, it does play a prominent enough role to consider the film a little disappointing because it gets caught up in the wash of its own drama. If you have a normal family being terrorized by a demonic hellspawn, do you really need to diffuse that with the fatherís growing sickness and hallucinatory insanity? Iíll never begrudge an attempt to subvert or go beyond genre expectations, but The Barrens never finds a convincing answer for this question, so Jersey Devil enthusiasts will likely be left wanting for a great cinematic interpretation of the legend. Sometimes, it almost feels as if this is a conscious riff on The Blair Witch Project (especially since thereís a direct reference to the film), which is an inspired move considering how well that filmís DNA could mix with something like The Jersey Devil; itís just too bad The Barrens isnít interested in being ambiguous enough to pull it off.
At least fans donít have to wait long for this latest offering from Bousman; unlike Motherís Day, this one hasnít sat on the shelf waiting for distribution. Though he conceived the film not long after filming Saw II, it didnít go into production until late last year, and Anchor Bay is bringing it home on DVD and Blu-ray on October 9th. The high-def offering features a fine presentation, with the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack particularly revealing to the filmís ambiance. Bousman and cinematographer Joseph White drop by for a commentary, and thereís exactly one deleted scene, so the disc is a little light on extras. Those who venture into The Barrens may meet with a film that frustrates, depending on just how much they really want to see the Jersey Devil done justice; this is not that film, so it feels like a missed opportunity. Rent it!
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