Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: The Barn

by Patrick Bromley
That poster is the best thing about this movie. That's not a knock on the film. It's just that the poster is really, really great.

Writer/director Justin Seaman's The Barn is the newest latest (to me) indie horror movie that exists to fetishize the 1980s in every way, from the aesthetics to the effects to even some members of the cast. It's the kind of film that, like 2015's Lost After Dark and last year's Secret Santa, exists less to pay tribute to '80s horror than to slavishly recreate it, all imitation and not inspiration. And yet despite being part of what I see as a depressing trend in indie horror, The Barn is charming and fun and one of the best examples of its type that I've seen. Taken on its own, I enjoyed the movie. Taken as part of a growing fad, I feel like I'm over it.
Based on a story that the Pennsylvania-based Seaman wrote when he was eight years old, The Barn tells the legend of three demonic spirits -- The Boogeyman, Candycorn Scarecrow and Hallowed Jack -- who awaken from within an old barn on Halloween night 1989 and terrorize a town. When a group of kids stop in town on their way to a concert, they come face to face with the monsters and best friends Sam (Mitchell Musolino) and Josh (Will Stout) must follow the rules of their favorite holiday to win back the night.

There's a lot that The Barn has going for it. The movie is heavy with Halloween atmosphere and a real love for the mythology of the holiday, going so far as to create its own legends to correspond with the night; each of the three monsters represents a different aspect of Halloween and feel like real stories we might have heard as kids. That Halloween vibe is probably my favorite thing about the film and is the reason I may return to it in future Octobers, as it's clear just how much affection the filmmakers have for the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Director Seaman tries to approximate the look of an '80s horror movie without going overboard on post-production scratches or gimmicky "missing reel" bullshit (it was funny in Grindhouse and never again). The occasional cigarette burn is visible from time to time, but it's hard to hold that against the movie when Mike Flanagan did the exact same thing in Ouija: Origin of Evil just a few months back. There's some synth score, but it's never overdone; most of the music in the is metal that's not entirely period accurate. The practical gore effects are fun, particularly during one mid-movie slaughter that piles one gag on top of another. Hell, even a cameo by First Jason himself Ari Lehman manages to be super fun, with the gloved one appearing as the host of a late night video show with an opening credits sequence that's hilariously spot-on.
Linnea Quigley also appears in a single-scene cameo as an uppity religious woman who doesn't like all this glorification of Halloween, and her sequence points to a big part of my issue with The Barn. It's not Quigley. She's fine, and it's always fun to see her getting work. It's the way the scene is edited so that it feels like it takes twice as long as it needs to. This is a recurring concern in the movie, which only runs 90 minutes but when drags much more often than it should. There's a shapelessness to the narrative that makes it confusing as to when certain things are taking place; after a prologue, The Barn cuts to a sequence in which kids are trick or treating, only to reveal that it's actually the night before Halloween. It introduces the "let's go to a concert" conceit, but then there's a stopover in a town and a trip to the barn and then back to the town and all sense of time is pretty much lost. The movie feels flabby on a macro and a micro level, with a story that moves in fits and starts and scenes that are in need of tighter editing.
Allow me this digression. I keep thinking we have reached peak nostalgia, but then something comes along to prove me wrong and suggest that the movement shows no signs of slowing. There are movies I've really liked (such as last year's The Mind's Eye or even Beyond the Gates) that have a heavy '80s influence because the new generation of indie horror directors were raised on those movies, but they're also movies that feel like new works created by original voices interested in making something good. Other indie horror films I've seen of late (I won't say which ones, as there's no point in calling them out by name) appear content to rest on recreating the '80s aesthetic and use it as an excuse to make a shitty movie because, well, some of those early '80s horror movies were shitty. So now we're creating nostalgia for something we don't even necessarily like, but have fondness for because...we saw it when we were kids? Or didn't see it when we were kids, but it came out at the same time as other movies we liked as kids? As someone who is not immune to the allure of nostalgia, I'm genuinely trying to understand this phenomenon.

The Barn is taking things several steps further, as the nostalgia doesn't end with the film itself. It has become part of all of the marketing and even merchandising around the movie (made possible by a hugely successful Indiegogo campaign), which offers big box VHS copies of the film, the soundtrack album on vinyl and cassette tape (retro!), a board game, vinyl Halloween masks, old school-style The Barn action figures and an 8-bit video game. The glorification of the '80s has become its own little cottage industry as far as The Barn is concerned, and I bring this up not to damn the film or the filmmakers (this is all separate from the movie itself), but to question where the breaking point will be. Is trading in on things that are old a sustainable business model? There are communities of people who fetishize VHS, not because it's the only way to see certain movies (it still is) but because of how it looks and sounds, this despite the fact that it is an inferior format in every single measurable way. I'm guessing there are also people who prefer 8-bit video games to anything on their PS4s. So we're no longer selling a movie that feels retro, but recapturing the entire experience of what it was to be an '80s kid. This is not the way to create art that is new or exciting. This is not the way we move forward.
Again, The Barn is not really the problem here. It may be symptomatic of the problem, but at least it's a pretty good symptom. The movie is more or less successful in achieving its goals; it has a fun Halloween vibe and the monsters are cool new creations. It genuinely means well and feels free of cynicism. At the same time, I don't know if it's a movie I can revisit all that often, having gotten most of what I'm going to get from it on a single viewing. As approximations go, this one's enjoyable. But if I want to recapture the feeling of watching an '80s horror movie, I've got shelves full of the real deal here at home.

12 comments:

  1. Good review! My DVD copy of The Barn arrived on Friday, just in time to be able to finally visit this film over the long weekend. Unfortunately, I was left empty and maybe I was a victim of the "hype machine" (which I admit, I manufacture myself) as I had been anticipating this film for quite a while. It's no fault to the filmmakers. I felt the love in what they wanted to do and I believe they executed the film that they wanted to make. Ultimately, and this is a bummer, after the fantastic intro and first 10-15 minutes, I was simply bored. I didn't feel that the film was able to maintain the nostalgia or aesthetic throughout and even at a normal 90 minute runtime, it seemed to take forever for anything to happen and the dialog wasn't enough to keep me interested. I really wanted to love this as it's the type of Horror film that I generally respond to positively, but I think now that I have seen most of the throwback films in the genre, it takes a lot to impress me ("Lake Nowhere"). I also had high hopes for "The Sleeper" a few years ago, which felt very much the same as "The Barn". Still, I can't wait to see what the filmmakers do next as I'm always anticipating up and coming directors working in the genre and I plan on revisiting "The Barn" soon, because, you never know.

    I also feel that the "VHS nostalgia" movement is about to end. It's been happening for much longer than people realize in the underground scene and with the exception of a few gems, I think it's a fad that is going to be replaced very soon (maybe even this year) with whatever cyclical trend starts happening. I'm not discrediting the nostalgia by any means, I actually loved it when it started happening as a child of the 80's it brought me back to fantastic memories. I'm just realistic that aesthetics and certain types of filmmaking, music, etc...come and go and then years and years later come back again ("La La Land" for example) and I think that's a good thing for the most part.

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    1. I think Lake Nowhere is helped by the fact that it's way shorter (under 60 min.) and has some of the gimmicky VHS stuff like fake commercials to make it fun. It's also more interesting visually, especially in the last act.

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    2. Agreed. Maybe not a fair comparison based on the length. I just thought within that short runtime they actually had a pretty well thought out story and it felt feature length.

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    3. Oh, agreed! I didn't mean to say the comparison was unfair. I think it just goes to my point that The Barn feels/is long and it's hard to sustain the gimmick.

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    4. 10-4. Man, I really wanted to love this one.

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  2. A wise gangster named Tony Soprano once said, "'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation," and though it may not be the lowest form of cinematic device, I agree that it's starting to wear thin. When it's used as a launching pad for something different it can still be good but like you say, when it's just imitation, what's the point really? The 80s was a unique time because a mix of the culture and technology (and cocaine) allowed for a lot of creative freedom in the industry which resulted in a lot of ambitious and original, if not necessarily "good", movies. Attempting to copy that is sadly ironic and even kind dishonours the spirit of the era. Maybe that's a little harsh and I'm sure I'll keep watching and even enjoying movies like The Barn but I certainly don't need anymore of them and I'd much rather filmmakers use the resources to do something different.

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  3. But the real question is... how did you get to see this?

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    1. http://www.thebarnmerch.com/

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    2. Ugh, I was hoping for a cheaper option.

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  4. You bring up a really great point that I think encapsulates my frustration with nostalgia movies. They seem to be made to replicate what we loved as kids.....but we're not kids, and kids today have moved past these kinds of films. I love Monster Squad because I can't separate my adult feelings with my child feelings. The Barn can never catch that.

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  5. Ya'll seem like just a bunch of haters IMO. I mean, you clearly stated that you have shelves full of 80s movies to watch so then why did you even check this film out? Just to complain? It clearly was meant for people who want something new that feels old. God so much whining and boo hooing on this page. I really wanted to enjoy this article after just watching the film myself, but dang its clearly a fan made valentine to 80s horror. Ya'll the reason hollywood churns out crap horror anymore. Get over it

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    1. Thanks Anonymous. I appreciate how you managed to voice an alternative opinion with clear respect to the other commenters on this site. The ability to unabashedly love what we love (and also not love what we don't quite get) is what makes this community great. It was really good that you were able to avoid whining and boo hooing while addressing the tone of other comments. I'd only wish you would attach a name to your comment, as I feel like that would aid the productive discussion you seem primed for. (We won't bite, we promise!)

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