Halloween Home Video #7: Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Barrens

Halloween Home Video (2012 edition) rises again for another dose of small-screen video horror. Stay tuned throughout October for more hair-raising tricks and treats.

Movie poster for The Barrens starring Stephen Moyer

© 2012 Anchor Bay

For A Much-Needed Getaway

Today’s feature is a family-style nightmare in the forest, courtesy of writer and director Darren Lynn Bousman. Bousman is best known to the world as the director of Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV. That sounds like a setup for a cheap shot, but Bousman is a new director with enough style and imagination to suggest that it may be too early to judge his body of work. To give due credit, Saw II is arguably the best installment in that whole blighted franchise.

In addition to The Barrens, Bousman is currently promoting a warped musical anthology entitled The Devil’s Carnival. As with Ti West’s The Innkeepers, some measure of fanfare over this successor to Repo! The Genetic Opera has probably reached you over the cult-horror airwaves, while The Barrens is still waiting to make a splash.

In its fundamental makeup, the story of the The Barrens hearkens to Stephen King’s better work, such as Cujo, Pet Sematary and especially The Shining. The central plot element of a nervous little kid named Danny and his unstable dad may not be a coincidence. That dad is Richard Vineyard (Stephen Moyer of True Blood), and what he wants most in the world is to have some quality time with his family on a camping trip, away from the rest of the world. Although the family is currently shaken up by the disappearance of their beloved dog, Richard gathers up young Danny, teen daughter Sadie, and wife Cynthia (Mia Kirshner of The L Word and 24) and heads for the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where he often went as a boy with his father.

It will be curious for True Blood fans to see Moyer forsake his antebellum gentility for upbeat Englishness similar to the actor’s real-life cadence. Rest assured, though, that he will not pass the weekend without many familiar sneers of anguish and hostility. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

The sensitive Danny immediately begins to harbor anxiety over snippets of talk about the Jersey Devil, a legendary crypto-monster famously rumored to prowl the Barrens. To be fair, he is six years old. Meanwhile, Richard gets plenty worked up about the slovenly, overcrowded, tech-enabled state of today’s public campsite. Initially he tries to make nice with his obnoxious fellow “campers,” but soon insists that he and his party hike on into a more isolated section of the park. At first this seems like the normal reaction that all dads have on family trips. Soon, however, he begins to exhibit signs of a more substantial and dangerous breakdown. The vacation he planned to bring them together is falling apart with alarming speed.

Something bad is definitely walking around the woods nearby. Richard starts to suffer terrifying visions and increasing paranoia. Cynthia, no fool, wonders about the possibility of a correlation. You are likely to figure out the Big Secret sooner rather than later, so that you may have twenty minutes or more to enjoy the knowledge before the characters grasp it for themselves. Fortunately, guessing the nature of the problem in this case neither relieves the suspense nor resolves the conflict. Bousman has put everyone in too deep a predicament, and a messy confrontation is virtually assured.

The Barrens is a nice, surprisingly tight little genre film. The vivid, saturated, tree-worshiping exteriors are reminiscent of True Blood, though Moyer’s central role might be making that suggestion more strongly than any conscious style choice by Bousman or his cinematographer. A ruthlessly contemporary fable casting the ideal family getaway into hell, The Barrens will serve as emotional vindication for a cross section of adults who have identified a keenly drawn father figure in Clark Griswold, and perhaps feel guilty about not having appreciated family trips more when they were obnoxious kids.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Cabin In The Woods

The Cabin In The Woods (2012) Blu-Ray disc

© 2012 Lionsgate

This super-secret brainchild of screenwriters Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon came shrouded as carefully as Super 8, surrounded by many a dark rumor but giving maddeningly little away. Goddard and Whedon began laying it out during their time working on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. Then, in a blaze of energy, they cobbled the labyrinthine script together in a three-day writing session. After a close call with the bankruptcy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (their original studio), the project nearly became a lost legend. However, Lionsgate swept it up and by all accounts urged the writers to make the film exactly as they wished. Lionsgate has done a lot of good by giving such films a fighting chance, and even when they’ve turned out the odd dog, it seems that Lionsheart has been in the right place. All this took three years, and by the time the movie surfaced, some of the people involved were a lot more famous than they were while shooting this film. Chris Hemworth in particular had been picked up by Marvel for Thor, and was months away from his next Whedon-penned release, The Avengers. Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, a very big part of this movie’s soul, had bolstered his popularity with strong supporting turns in Burn After Reading and Let Me In (still the best film of 2010, no matter what history says).

The Cabin In The Woods opened to great fanfare and a very polarized reaction. Masquerading as a standard-issue slasher (as the title suggests), it soon goes off the rails into a payoff the audience would never even think of expecting. It pays tribute to the legacy of films like Hellraiser, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween and countless others, mainly by turning the horror genre on its grisly head. This pissed a lot of people off, and to them I can only offer my condolences. For those of us who love the movie (full disclosure), we love it down to its black beating heart. Hopefully our multiple trips to the theater made up for those who warned their friends off the experience. Those sad, sad souls…

Enough. The point is that Goddard and Whedon seem to have a sense of this film’s Blu-Ray target market. This is most evident in the shocking decision to package the disc with a gigantic plot spoiler on the front (NOT pictured above). The lenticular printing on the Blu-Ray sleeve juxtaposes the well-known “cabin as puzzle box” used on the film’s promotional poster with some imagery that newcomers to the movie are not going to want to see beforehand. As appealing a collectible as it seems, this presentational choice practically assumes that everyone in the world has either seen the film by now or has no interest in seeing it. Maybe that really is how the filmmakers and distributors feel about it, but that seems like bad marketing, and is arguably a betrayal of the movie’s spirit.

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard team up for The Cabin In The Woods

The powerhouse team behind the scream.

For those already in the fold, as it were, the acquisition of this disc is an assured and mandatory course of action. The Cabin In The Woods boasts bold colors, minute detail, and rich sound design. The more immersive the viewing experience, the better, which is where Blu-Ray presentation comes in. This is a key factor separating this movie from the slasher classics to which it pays tribute. Many of those films play just as well or better on scratchy VHS tapes or drive-in screens, but despite its murky roots Cabin is very much about being sharp and vivid.

In addition, the special features are substantial without undue overkill. The feature commentary track lays out the history and details of the production. Goddard and Whedon are hot stuff right now, and they clearly know it, but they also periodically catch themselves and apologize for going on about how cool they think their movie is. To be fair, the movie is that cool, and ultimately it is their passion for the film, and not any kind of unmerited self-congratulation, that comes across.

The exuberant spirit of director Goddard and producer Whedon was infectious, it seems, as several short featurettes on the film’s makeup and visual effects demonstrate. On location in the deceptively snowy woods of British Columbia, the crew and cast of Cabin appear to have worked extremely hard but had an unbelievable amount of fun. The most likely effect of this material is that anyone watching it will probably want to go out and make a movie of their own.

The only slight misfire on this disc is a “BonusView” feature in which the movie plays normally, with a miniscule pop-up screen interrupting occasionally to offer insights by the cast and crew about how the movie got made. The information is interesting, but the execution is not so great. The sub-picture is too small, and appears at odd intervals. It would have been better simply to make one more featurette focused on the cast and characters, to supplement all the neato technical profiles. Given the thorough nature of the audio commentary, this gimmick feature seems redundant and underplanned.

All in all, this is a nearly perfect little package for Cabin fans wanting to know every last little bit about how the film came to be. Now they can watch it over and over in unsurpassed quality and at any hour they choose.

Watching The Cabin In The Woods on Blu-Ray

* Actual fan reaction.

For those still on the fence about The Cabin In The Woods, however, this is not the most inviting of video releases. Even after all this time, they don’t print DVDs of Citizen Kane with a burning sled on the cover, or The Usual Suspects with a big arrow pointing to… well, you either know or you don’t. That’s the point, right?

In addition, while Goddard and Whedon’s confidence in how great the film is plays just fine to those already convinced, it will probably sound pompously self-assured to anyone less than enchanted with the movie. On the other hand, it would be nice if more filmmakers were so exuberant and personally invested in their work for its own sake.

True Blood Recap: Season 5 Raises The Stakes

A word before we begin: The following is a comprehensive overview of the fifth broadcast season of the HBO series True Blood. It is primarily intended for those who have already watched the entire season. Plot details and surprises will be indiscriminately discussed with the aim of analyzing the narrative and thematic elements of the show. That said, this is not meant as an exhaustive synopsis either. There will be gaps, but hopefully those who have seen all or most of Season 5 will read and enjoy, and in some cases take violent issue with the opinions herein. I welcome dissent and debate, but dread spoiling the fun for unwitting souls who have stumbled in accidentally. If you do not yet wish to know crucial things that happen in this season of True Blood, please refrain from reading until such time as you have viewed the show to your satisfaction. Thanks to all. – DLF

Anna Paquin leads the cast of True Blood Season 5

But Sookie, dear… waiting is all you do!”

The grand summer of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises went by with astonishing speed. True Blood Season 5 seemed to go doubly quick. After a year of agonizing suspense, we found Tara Thornton languishing in her own lifeblood, Bill Compton and Eric Northman in the hands of the menacing vampire Authority, Sam Merlotte and Alcide Herveaux on the fighting side of some bad werewolves, Pam Swynford De Beaufort trying to hold down a foundering business, Russell Edgington missing and presumed not dead, Lafayette running out of people to cook for… oh, plus a restless demon on his back… and Sookie Stackhouse sprawled in the middle of one big mess.

The series has tightened up considerably since the meandering adventures of Season 4. None of the subplots wander nearly as far afield, and the writers seemed to have gathered their thoughts and gotten back to the main thrust of the story. Remember how the show used to be about vampires? That is happily the case once more.

In fact, the vampire Authority – plotting the world’s future from a hidden compound in New Orleans – is the main focus of the show throughout the season. Guardian Roman Zimojic is leading an inquisition in reverse, attempting to smoke out the most dangerously orthodox vampires and settle them down for the mutual good of both humans and vampires. “Mainstreaming,” the pact struck by living and undead governments guaranteeing peaceful coexistence, is in jeopardy thanks to the Sanguinistas, a cabal of vampire fundamentalists with themselves in mind as the dominant species. They follow their own testament, which states that the one true deity is Lilith, a mythic figure popularly associated with succubi (sexy vampire ladies). Lilith wants her children to enjoy pure human blood in limitless quantities, no substitutes. Tru Blood, the synthetic hemo-brew allowing vampires to survive without victimizing humans, becomes a key target of the Sanguinist agenda.

In his efforts to rein in destructive influences, Roman enlists Bill and Eric to hunt down the escaped maniac Russell Edgington and bring his murderous ways to an end. Russell was officially supposed to be dead long ago, but personal feelings and vengeful scores have clouded everyone’s judgment. The successful capture merely gives Russell a chance to stage his own Authority coup. Bill and Eric join up first to save their skins, and second to be in positions of power when whatever promises to go down actually goes down. Double crosses and conflicting interests eventually place Sanguinists in charge of the Authority, rather than under its heel, with Russell playing blissful blasphemous deacon. Never content without a happy catamite, Russell takes former anti-vampire zealot turned gay vampire advocate Steve Newlin under his fangs. Eric plays every trick in the book to extricate himself, his adoptive sister Nora, and Bill from the Authority’s clutches, only to find that Bill is becoming quite the zealot himself. The corruption of spirit that began when he became king of Louisiana reaches new heights as Lilith, in drug-induced visions, pits him against his fellow vampire chancellors in a bid to become the Sanguinist messiah.

Incredibly, all this happened in twelve weeks, and that was only the vampire part. There was much, much more, and true to form they managed a wrenching cliffhanger at the end of just about every episode.

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Blu-Ray/DVD Review: The Wicker Tree

Britannia Nicol encounters the horror of The Wicker Tree

Most horror fans have had their ears eagerly pricked since rumors of Robin Hardy’s follow-up to his 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man became a sure thing. Now, as The Wicker Tree moves from a limited release to mass availability on DVD and Blu-Ray, the overriding critical reaction has been to cram it back into the womb whence it came.

Perhaps The Wicker Tree‘s toughest critics were never Wicker Man fans to begin with. It may lack the sharpness and subtlety of its predecessor, but as a continuation of the legacy this new film is quite satisfactory. At any rate it is worlds better than the Neil LaBute/Nicolas Cage abomination daring to call itself a remake.

Not necessarily a sequel, but certainly a chapter set in the same universe, The Wicker Tree weaves yet another tale of “innocents” lured into the worship of a power they’d sooner not, along with disquieting lessons in the influence of ancient Celtic religion on the modern western Church.

Beth Boothby is a gospel singer from Texas with the fire of revival in her heart. The latest leg of her mission has brought her to Tressock, in the southern borderlands of Scotland, where by an arrangement whose nature we never fully learn, she is to share the Word with the local yokels. Accompanying her is her cowboy swain, Steve, who serves as a one man entourage. Inevitably, we learn that the two “innocents,” whose evangelism is part of an attempt to banish a worldly past before their planned marriage, have been lured by a local cult to serve in mysterious rites at the hands of local pillar Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish). The family Morrison, around which the original “Wicker Man” is based, seems to have thrived in high circles.

Graham McTavish invites new innocents to the slaughter in Robin Hardy's The Wicker Tree

Unlike most Christian evangelists depicted in film, Beth and Steve strive to be as tolerant as possible of the ancient religious beliefs they find still prevalent in Tressock. This contrasts sharply with Sergeant Howie’s (Edward Woodward) strident condemnation of the Summerisle community in The Wicker Man. Beth happily volunteers to serve as Queen of the May Day festivities, scarcely realizing the import of her decision. It helps the credibility of her character that she is struggling to banish a worldly past that does not fit with her newly embraced faith. In the exuberant pagan sensuality of their new surroundings, they find themselves drawn back to the lifestyle they desire, diverting from the path they have vowed to follow. Steve jumps in more eagerly and consciously than Beth, but both have been lured past the point of no return before either realizes it.

To put it a little differently, this movie has a good plot and lots of neat ideas, but a pervasive sense of dread is notably absent. Rather than save all its massive revelations for the last five minutes, as in the original film The Wicker Tree tips its hand by degrees until the priority changes from “What’s everyone hiding?” to “How can we escape?” It is less like The Wicker Man than one of Roger Corman’s many vehicles for Vincent Price. Will Jane Asher get the hot wax, or be buried alive, or is there a chance the castle might burn down around them all first?

Christopher Lee, the main draw of the film, had to have his part severely reduced owing to injury and age, but his brief appearance here is a nice link to the charismatic Lord Summerisle of the prior film. He maintains, and passes on, his eeerily logical outlook on matters supernatural and occult.

Lachlan Morrison invokes the power of The Wicker Tree

The creepy parts are reminiscent, but cleverly different, from those of The Wicker Man. The idea of sacrifice as atonement and restoration of the natural balance gets a distinctly modern spin, as we find out the contemporary function of Tressock’s May festival. These people have good reasons for what they do, creepy and misguided though it may seem. The rites themselves have changed in practice if not in spirit, and as Beth and Steve draw closer to a grim, disturbing finale, the movie rekindles enough of its ancestor’s spirit that it’s hard to imagine a better result. What more were all the naysayers expecting? I’m not about to say it is great, but it is more than suitable as fan fodder and a night’s entertainment.

Collectors, go ahead and pick up a copy. It’s moody, spooky, sexy, weird and occasionally funny. It looks really good, and high production values have got to count for something. For that matter, the music is excellent. The worst thing about the acting is that Texan does not appear to be a first language for the two leads. But we forgave Anna Paquin and Ryan Kwanten and we love True Blood anyway, right? This is a film to enjoy if you don’t ask too much of it. The makers have not gone overboard with behind-the-scenes insight about the making of the film, but there is plenty of interest to somebody on board with The Wicker Tree in the first place.

The Wicker Man will always stand as a unique piece of work, just as there could never truly be more than one Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Perhaps it would have been better to let the legend lie unmolested, but as this kind of thing goes, The Wicker Tree is far from inept. At worst it is a harmless appendix, and a diversion worthy of a couple of hours.

The Wicker Tree is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay.

Book Review: Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods
by A.S. Byatt
Grove Press, 192 pp.
CLR [rating:3.0]

A.S. Byatt’s Norse Apocalypse

Some useful, if unorthodox, comparisons can be made between Guillermo del Toro’s 2008 film Pan’s Labyrinth and A.S. Byatt’s new not-quite-a-novel Ragnarok: The End of Gods. Both works blend realistic stories of the plight of children during wartime with dense, intricately woven mythologies. Like del Toro’s magical-surrealist film, Byatt’s story follows a little girl in England during WWII as she struggles simultaneously to understand and to elude the violent realities of her life. After discovering the book Asgard and the Gods, Byatt’s progatonist, the thin child, plunges into the world of Norse mythology: “The book became a passion.” Both stories dwell on the way that the very real terrors that surround the characters are both worse than those in fairy tales and in direct conflict with a mainstream mythos of forgiveness and love. Also, both stories elaborate on the premise that fantasy can provide sensitive humans with not only an escape from the sometimes “unreal” violence that surrounds them but also a way of understanding it—where it comes from, what it signifies, and how it all, finally, must end.

The thin child is initially drawn into the myths through a rejection of Christianity and a fascination with the dense, violent stories from a culture with which the thin child both identifies and sees herself at war. At night, “She had dreams that there were Germans under her bed, who, having cast her parents into a green pit in a dark wood, were sawing down the legs of her bed to reach her and destroy her.” Confronting the terrifying reality of her parents’ vulnerability, the thin child turns to Germanic legends in an attempt to capture the reality of wartime inside her imagination, to make sense of the world through stories: “Who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky?” Perhaps more importantly, the child finds a foothold in the stories when she comes to think of the Norse myths as her own: “The book also said that these stories belonged to ‘Nordic’ peoples, Norwegians, Danes, and Icelanders. The thin child was, in England, a northerner. The family came from land invaded and settled by Vikings. These were her stories.”

Reading these violent mythological stories and literally retelling them to the reader, the author/narrator/thin child—Byatt clearly blurs the line between these—explores a world of narrative previously unknown to her. Drawn to the glamour and strangeness, the heights of Sturm und Drang, the thin child finds these new/old stories compelling and meaningful. Byatt uses these stories from Norse mythology to wrap her thin child in tales about what holds the world together and what will ultimately lead to its unraveling. Obsessed with the idea of apocalypse, the child whose world is on the verge of unwinding takes comfort in the fantastic tales of sea serpents and ravenous wolves, tortured demi-gods and Yggdrasil—the tree that holds the world in its branches. The thin child finds a way to live in these stories, which vividly reflect the terrors, uncertainties, and vicissitudes of life in a way that both “the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild” Jesus and “the barbaric sacrificial gloating” Old Testament deity fail to do. Byatt subtly layers her exploration of these fascinating and complex stories with references to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Rejecting Christian’s journey for her own in a world where there is no clear path from point A to point B, where monsters lurk behind national borders and children carry gas masks with their lunch pails, the thin child finds that the story of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, offers some comfort.

At its best, Byatt’s work is a meditation on the gods, what they mean and what they offer us: “The words men used to describe the gods were the words they used for fetters or bonds, things which held the world together, within bounds, preventing the breakout of chaos and disorder.” Byatt marvelously describes the way in which the Norse world is tenuously held together. Jormungandr, a colossal serpent, grows so large through her roaming and ravening in the world’s oceans that eventually she meets her own tail and bites it, coming to rest on the ocean floor as an anguine belt holding the world fast in her coils. Frigg is a massive wolf whose voraciousness provokes the gods into trapping him. The father of both these creatures is the demi-god Loki, whose obsession with chaos and disorder contends furiously and insidiously throughout the myths with the primary pantheon’s efforts to produce order, make laws, and control the uncontrollable. Through such stories, in Byatt’s telling, the Norse myth makers envision the world as hovering on the edge of a catastrophic slide into total destruction. On the day when the great serpent lets go of her tail, Frigg slips his bounds, and the trickster god Loki is freed from his prison, the gods of order and laws will face their twilight. As go the gods—the human source of metaphor and intelligibility in an unintelligibly violent world, so go the rest of us.

Unfortunately, though perhaps intentionally, Ragnarok suffers from a lack of cohesiveness. Where Byatt might have bound the thin child’s story tightly to vivid evocations of monstrous bargains and colossal trees, she chooses instead merely to drape these retellings over a vision of modern life. The Norse gods, with all their destructive energy, leave her thin child unscathed. In this way, Ragnarok compares unfavorably to Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro engages legends that, though entirely of his own creepy concoction, are equally dense and straddle just as effectively the line between sanity and psychic dissolution, realist fatalism and fantasy escapism, fascism and fiction. Byatt, on the other hand, seems less interested in weaving a story in which these old gods might truly be brought to bear on the psychic reality of the thin child protagonist and more in relating the childhood experience of simply discovering them. The beauty of Byatt’s writing is undeniable, but the story loses something through its overreliance on the myths themselves to generate drama that could otherwise come from the tension between order and chaos implicit in the child’s life in wartime.