‘The Barn’ is a love letter to monster movies and the campy decade where they reigned supreme, that’s as fun as it is bloody!
The idea of everything old being new again is hardly a recent development. That being said, the last year in particular has seen throwbacks to the ’80s and retro pastiches becoming a rabid obsession of audiences. Material like Stranger Things and The Final Girls have recently connected with people to unbelievable degrees due to their nostalgic love for the era. It’s not difficult to see why this portion of the past is experiencing such a resurgence. The ’80s are a time where the monster reigned supreme and horror films carried a surprising amount of power over the rest of cinema. So in spite of such a retro love letter hardly being unfamiliar territory, The Barn pulls this off so effortlessly and authentically. It’s definitely the strongest example of achieving this throwback horror since say, Grindhouse. In fact, The Barn is some of the most fun that I’ve had at a horror film in a long time.
The story that The Barn frames itself around involves a cursed barn that has largely been forgotten about for thirty years. The dangerous legend associated with this relic sees three monsters, The Boogeyman, Hollow Jack, and the Candy Corn Scarecrow, being components of a Halloween curse that surrounds all of this. Cut to 1989, where Sam and Josh, two precocious teens that are a little too gung ho for the holiday, come face-to-face with this deadly curse and the horrors that come along with it.
The Barn spends a good deal of time on its characters, with both Sam (Mitchell Musolino) and Josh (Will Stout) being well defined, albeit simple, protagonists. Everyone comes across as a caricature, but in the comforting, intentional way that is fundamental to the ’80s. They’re given a large posse of friends to play with, which allows for the film to have a rather expendable death count, which is the right direction for this sort of film. You need to see those silly, over the top death sequences. As their friends begin dying around them, The Barn continues to bank on Sam and Josh’s friendship. There is actually believable, compelling chemistry between the two leads that gives this film a healthy, necessary energy to drive it forward.
One of the aspects that makes all of this work so well is Sam’s deep love for Halloween. He pushes across an infectious obsession with the holiday that frequently had me thinking about Matthew Lillard in Scream. He’s frequently bringing up these rules for Halloween that he’s created and each one of them is a real delight. Sam treats Halloween like a religion and this approach ends up being really beautiful. Add to that the fact that Sam and Josh are about to graduate high school with this being their last opportunity to trick or treat and paint the town blood red.
A nice touch that director, Justin M. Seaman, utilizes with the film’s supporting cast, like Sam’s Dad or Ms. Barnhart, is that these people are giving performances right out of the Tim and Eric School of Acting. These characters pause at the wrong moments in sentences and make bizarre enunciation choices as if they’re completely out of their element. Again, all of this is done to play into the campiness and hammy nature of horror performances circa the ’80s but the film nails this aspect especially well. This is something that’s really hard to do effectively without it going too far in either direction. These performances are wonderfully wrong in the right sort of way, if that makes sense. You’re absolutely laughing with the film rather than at it. It’s in on this “treat.”
Seaman has gone on to say that he wrote the script for this when he was eight years old. Whether the script has been updated much since then, the juvenile, hokey attitude suits the hapless teens and the universe that’s created here. This is the sort of world where a place can be called Deathville and characters just blink and keep moving along.
A lot of the mayhem in this film is courtesy of its big monsters, who are certainly worthy of digging into. There’s something to be said for creating new beasts in an age of increasingly remade horror and all of these monsters impressively stand out. Candy Corn Scarecrow has a truly menacing face and a mystery to his innards that makes him even more frightening when you start to dissect him. He’s not unlike Oogie Boogie from Nightmare Before Christmas, with the pieces to him all being well done. Pumpkin-headed antagonists have been done plenty of times before, but an inspired touch to Hallow Jack is that he is able to use any jack-o-lantern as his eyes and spy through them. It’s an idea that gets played around with a lot in the film and kind of makes him The Barn’s MVP. Weakest of the lot is the Boogeyman, who is a miner zombie type ghoul, but he still carries a morose, creepy quality. Plus, there’s a scene involving him and a meat grinder that won’t be leaving your brain anytime soon. On that note, all of the deaths here are actually very well done, showcasing the gory practical effects that were so fundamental to the decade. The silliness that is occurring around all of this doesn’t weaken any of these murders.
On top of deaths, The Barn continues to throw ‘80s affectations at you, sinking you increasingly into the decade. There’s a damaged film grain placed over everything, reduced aspect ratio montages that frequently pop up, and a perfect soundtrack that is constantly announcing what is currently going on in the film (“Drinking, Smoking, Living, Loving” is a definite highlight). Throw in some other staples of the time period like gratuitous tits and cheesy special effects and how can you go wrong?
Now, it seems like a lot of these touches could be going on in order to cover up shortcomings of the production, but that that shouldn’t be held against the film at all. Embracing specific stylistic touches, like abrupt edits that resemble film reel changes reflect a knowledge and love of the genre, not mistakes in need of correcting. To be able to disguise your technical shortcomings as stylistic assets requires a real degree of genius and The Barn makes the absolute most out of the small-scale production that they’re working with. It makes me immensely curious to see what writer/director Justin Seaman is capable of creating with a larger studio budget and not a period piece that heavily relies on the atmosphere of the era. I’ll definitely be paying attention to his next feature.
In spite of The Barn’s relatively simple plot, it does at times buckle under the weight of it’s own self-imposed rules. The ending in particular feels a little rushed or even thrown together while filming. That being said, this occasional clunkiness doesn’t take much away from the film itself, with this being the right sort of picture to have logic gaps.
The Barn isn’t the best horror movie of the year, but it’s one that I had a surprising amount of fun with and was laughing at a lot of its antics. This is a sort of horror that is very easy to attempt but something that requires a lot of skill and confidence to pull off successfully. The Barn completely taps into that energy from the ’80s and has you cheering and laughing while you watch between your fingers like you would with the classics of the time. The Barn isn’t perfect, but I defy you to be a John Carpenter fan or someone that digs ’80s horror and to not have a great time with this one.