In your traditional but well-loved story about a vacation gone very wrong, a man takes his family camping in the New Jersey Barrens and becomes convinced that they’re being stalked by the legendary Jersey Devil, a local legend made terrifyingly real in this film. A series of strange and violent events seem to support this. After all, eviscerated animals don’t usually drop straight out of the sky. But Richard also has a high fever from an unexplained injury, his temper seems to be getting worse and worse with every perceived slight, and the strangeness of the events surrounding him seem connected to his nightmares of a monstrous event in his childhood. Coincidence? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.
The Barrens does its best work when it just turns the camera on its cast and lets them bicker amongst each other, letting the drama unfold naturally without trying to explain everything in clear terms. This leads to some brilliant foreshadowing in the beginning (what happened to the family dog, for instance, is critical) from an event that initially looked like set dressing. However, it also leads to a few instances where pieces of the characters’ backstories aren’t revealed, and muddles the situation a bit too much. We know Richard and his daughter are from London, but his new wife and youngest son are not. We also know that Richard spent most of his childhood in New Jersey, and that something traumatic happened to him in the woods there. This trauma reveals itself at the worst possible moments, but is never fully explained or even examined. I’ll agree that some pieces of the backstory don’t need to be revealed – this is story about who these people are right now, not who they were in the past – but a few moments could have done with some clarification. For instance, whatever happened to Richard that he still (subconsciously) believes into adulthood that a monster was responsible? We don’t know.
Still, I like how The Barrens chose to disclose some information and keep the rest under wraps. It led to moments of poignant confession when various characters finally admitted things they’d been keeping secret, which makes for powerful filmmaking – especially with a horror film. Most of the horror here comes from the fact that there are circumstances that will make generally decent people do unspeakable, horrible things without changing their fundamental character. That, more than anything else, is what makes The Barrens so scary.
Whether or not the Jersey Devil exists or influenced any of the events in the film is left ambiguous at the ending, a move I’m not fond of. I feel that it undercuts the real unease that the story works in, about how decent people can – seemingly inexplicably – turn on the people they love without changing their fundamental character. Sometimes, good people do terrible things. A great deal of The Barrens is about secrets and hidden shame, and the resentment that grows out of keeping things from your loved ones. It places a lot of importance on the nature of confession and coming clean, though surprisingly doesn’t bring religion into the discussion. The Barrens just suggests that keeping shameful things hidden and lying to spare your loved ones feelings might not be the best course of action – and can lead to tragedy further down the line. Especially if the underlying cause of your childhood trauma is feeding into your hallucinations about the local boogeyman. Supernatural or not, the moral is about being truthful to your loved ones. It doesn’t hit you over the head with the message, but it’s buried beneath everything that the film does.
Still, The Barrens did give a surprisingly simple reason for all the weirdness that goes on in the film. Remember that injury that Richard had on his arm?
Turns out it’s a dog bite. And he has rabies.
Some information on the disease can be found here and here. For the most part, The Barrens gets most of its science right. The timeline of exactly when Richard got infected is a bit fuzzy, but the rest of the storyline makes sense to me. However, I am not a medical professional, so you can take that with a grain of salt.
Speaking of diseases, the film didn’t spell one of the more tragic aspects of rabies as it relates to the story. One of the reasons that Richard wants to go on the camping trip, aside from trying to connect with his children and increasingly frustrated wife, is to spread the ashes of his father. In a twisted bit of irony, he manages to do neither. Furthermore, rabies is almost always fatal once the neurological symptoms start to present. No matter how you take the events of the ending, Richard was already dying. So he went and alienated his family on the trip that was supposed to unite them, and would have inevitably died on the journey he was taking trying to put his father to rest. It’s one of film’s more tragic notes, though not spelled out. I didn’t put two and two together until I did some research on the disease. I’m undecided on whether or not this was a good move.
Visually, The Barrens is a lovely movie. The subdued imagery of the New Jersey forests were some of the most beautiful I’ve seen recently. However, some of the gore effects didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the background – it’s clear in a few instances that the dead animals are props, which broke the momentum of the scene – and some of the blood just didn’t look “right” compared to the realism of everything else in the film. The monster, however, looked goddamn amazing. It’s a feat to make something as outlandish as the Jersey Devil look persuasive and – dare I say it? – realistic on film, but The Barrens managed it. I give my since applause to the art department on that one.
The film was also well acted, with especially strong performances from Stephen Moyer as Richard and Peter DaCunha as the young Danny. However, the relationship that evolved between Sadie and her stepmother was my favorite by far, revealing a nuanced understanding of female relationships that I rarely see anywhere, let alone in horror. The Barrens isn’t afraid to portray its characters are people – well intentioned, but ultimately flawed, and sometimes cruel. Their flaws aren’t meant to demonize them, but simply to show how people let the best and worst of themselves out in moments of extreme stress – and occasionally just for the hell of it.
I enjoyed The Barrens a lot more than I expected to, despite its occasionally stumbling. Go see it. There aren’t many horror films that come out this nuanced these days.