Tag Archives: insanity

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

by Dan Fields
First published October 22, 2012 by the California Literary Review

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.

Halloween Home Video #6: Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones

by Dan Fields
First published October 19, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Promotional poster for Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones

© 2009 Screen Australia/Ambience Entertainment

For A Night With That Special Someone

Director Sean Byrne has come closer to producing a true spiritual heir to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre than just about anyone in the last thirty-five years. His prom-night horror story The Loved Ones spins a yarn of sick delusions and extreme human suffering, but somehow manages to find humor clinging to the underside of such dire subject matter.

In an unnamed suburb of Melbourne, it is time for the end of school dance, and everyone has a hot date. All except Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), a pink-clad misfit whose hopes and dreams seem to shatter when she finds out the handsome, Heath-Ledgerish Brent (Xavier Samuel) will be going with his main squeeze Holly.

We find out at the very beginning that Brent is a good kid, but grief and guilt over the tragic loss of his father have driven him into a permanent funk. He spends most of his time stoned, listening to black metal and mutilating his arms with a razor blade. However, he has retained sufficient charm to find a nice girlfriend and attract the attention of others, most notably Lola.

Meanwhile, Lola has a game plan in case she couldn’t find a date. She’s quite mad, you see. With the help of her doting Daddy (John Brumpton), she abducts Brent and stages her own “dance” at home. Brent awakens to a grotesque family dinner no doubt saluting the aforementioned Lone Star power tool murder incident film. Lola’s unrequited love, about which her own epiphany comes too late, fuels her all-night campaign of wounding, torturing, humiliating, and otherwise making Brent regret not only refusing her as a date, but also possibly ever having been born. Nonetheless, he is not about to go down quietly, and as the people in his life start to notice his absence on the night of the big dance, it becomes just possible that he may be found alive.

Horror films lacking any sense of humor are typically doomed before they begin. The smallest sliver of a bad joke can make all the difference in tone between a hair-raising thrill ride and an unbearable ordeal. At one point in Chain Saw‘s infamous dinner sequence, nonstop screaming terror breaks down into a savage collective giggling fit, as our poor heroine’s mind snaps for good. It is nearly impossible to suppress a hiccup of horrified laughter when watching this scene, and The Loved Ones breaks tension in similar ways whenever its brutality becomes almost too much to stand. This was the fatal mistake of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, which began promisingly but ran its course without the faintest wink or smile into a final act packed solid with degradation and torture. Had Byrne not perceived his opportunities to counter darkness with occasional doses of levity, The Loved Ones might have ended up much the same way. What too many people fail to realize is that the premise of almost any horror film, no matter how grave its tone, is inherently just a little bit ludicrous.

After his first taste of Lola’s sadistic madness, Brent tries to escape and ends up treed like a raccoon in the front yard. Something about the absurdity of his new plight, juxtaposed with the menace of the previous scene, is just plain hilarious. Robin McLeavy takes her performance to a new level at this key moment, giving full air to Lola’s battle between rage and squealing glee as she hurls rocks to knock him down.

To an outsider at least, there is a streak of fearless unpredictability in well-made Australian films. Something written into the cultural cinematic language will inevitably take straightforward scenarios in directions one cannot expect. This holds largely true across the board, whether the film in question is Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, The Last Wave or Muriel’s Wedding, and in this respect The Loved Ones does not disappoint.

Though boasting a sharp punchline or two, this movie is no soft affair, and has some genuine “hide your eyes” moments in store. The acting is excellent, the technical aspects solid, and the soundtrack absolutely stellar. In addition to the appropriate retro-prom-horror score by Ollie Olsen, you will find a mix of moody tunes by the likes of Kasey Chambers, The Little River Band, The Dirtbombs, Little Red, and Pete Molinari. It is a perfect jukebox of angst and woe, so that you may remember forever that there’s always somebody who had a worse prom night than you did.

Halloween Home Video #4: Alexandre Courtès’s Asylum Blackout

by Dan Fields
First published October 15, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Promotional poster for horror thriller The Incident aka Asylum Blackout

© 2012 IFC Films

For The Night Of The Big Storm

Asylum Blackout is a fine example of what can be achieved with a small budget and a simple idea. Good fundamentals and steady pace allow the makers of this film to economize on complexity, and the result is a satisfying no-frills thriller.

It is 1989 in the Pacific Northwest, and George (Rupert Evans) is the lead guitarist for a struggling rock band (though the movie never states it, I secretly hope that Asylum Blackout is also the name of the band). To keep themselves in food and shelter between gigs and recording sessions, he and his mates work as the kitchen staff of an asylum for the criminally insane. Despite the bleak institutional environment, George takes care to prepare nice meals for the inmates and treat them with personal respect as far as his job allows. While not exactly a futile ministry, this only seems to have positive effects as long as nothing else agitates them. At least it shows that George is basically a good guy trying to live well in a thankless and dangerous position.

The asylum guards keep a tight lid on even the most benign troublemakers, but times are hard and the facility is ominously understaffed these days. So much depends on an uninterrupted routine. George begins to notice an inmate named Harry Green (Richard Brake) giving him the eye, and possibly urging other inmates off their daily sedatives. Before he can voice his suspicions (perhaps stalled by wanting to spare his charges undue punishment), a massive thunderstorm knocks out the power in the asylum. In a mildly underwritten chance catastrophe – the script’s main weak point – the auxiliary power supply fries itself in a power surge, leaving the asylum in darkness with a whole ward of psychos out of their cells for feeding. For the rest of the film, George and his pals try desperately to escape the increasingly violent uprising that ensues. Once the inmates take down their first guard, they acquire things like keys and weapons, and the kitchen becomes quite a fearsome arsenal indeed.

Asylum Blackout relies on the simplicity of its narrative for strength, and does not overanalyze the pathology of Harry Green and the more villainous prisoners leading the charge. This is no Shutter Island, in other words. When George finally does have the opportunity to ask “Why?” he receives a clear and extremely disturbing answer.

The moral ambiguity of this movie may frustrate some, but pessimists will relish it. Conditions at the asylum are harsh, but the exact level of cruelty going on in private at the hands of the guards is unknown. Clearly they do not treat the prisoners as gently as George does, but whether or not they were asking for an uprising, or could have prevented it, remains a subject for dark speculation. To be sure, Harry Green is a pure force of evil. He has the look of a bloodthirsty hoodlum straight out of Brighton Rock, with a dash of the Joker for good measure.

Director Alex Courtès paints the background of Asylum Blackout nicely, with spare production design and dreary exteriors of Washington in the rain. The venues where the band records and plays are as nondescript and forbidding as the asylum where they work by day. Being trapped against all reason and hope is of symbolic importance to all these characters long before it takes on material significance. An escape plan is something that George and his buddies should have thought about a long time before now.