Written and Directed by: Zach Cregger
Starring: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and Justin Long
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Do I look like some kind of monster?”
Horror has long grappled with the notion of respectability, particularly in its cinematic form. Hollywood has been more than happy to exploit its reliable success at the box office but its history treating the genre respectably is much more spotty. However, it does seem we’re in the midst of a movement where horror is as venerated as it’s ever been, its current reputation bolstered by a wave of thematically rich films that explore the human condition. It’s something the genre’s always done, of course, but it must be especially pronounced now since some folks are straining to label certain efforts “elevated horror.” You know the type: those meticulously crafted, atmospheric musings on grief and trauma that “prove” horror is capable of being more than empty schlock.
And while that’s all well and good, there’s something to be said about a horror movie that just wants to absolutely fuck you up, respectability be damned. Sometimes, it’s thrilling when the genre embraces its disreputable roots and sends the audience on a wild ride: yes, we appreciate it when horror can plumb the depths of the human condition, but it’s also rad when it serves up splattered skulls with a huckster’s glee. Barbarian is one of these movies, and it reaches deep into that huckster’s bag of tricks, blending disorienting narrative tricks, grotesque imagery, and general unseemliness with a wry mean streak that makes it one of the most fun and fucked-up efforts in recent memory. Writer/director Zach Cregger knows that schlock isn’t a dirty word—it’s something any unsavory horror movie should aspire to be.
The hook here is the stuff of mundane nightmares: when Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) books a rental home in a dilapidated Detroit suburb, she’s alarmed to find a man already in the house. When Keith (Bill Skarsgård) answers the door, he eagerly invites Tess in to sort out the mess, allowing the two to discover that the home has been double-booked. Tess’s attempts to find a hotel room nearby prove fruitless, but Keith—ever the self-professed consummate gentleman—proposes she stay the night. She can even have the bedroom, he insists, noting he’s slept in worse places than this couch. With the exception of Tess’s door mysteriously opening on its own, the night proves to be uneventful, and both Tess and Keith go about their business the next day. Her return proves to be much more harrowing: not only is she chased into the house by an aggressive vagrant, but she also finds herself trapped in the basement, where she finds a hidden corridor with a grungy room housing a bed, a bucket, and television. However, this discovery is downright normal compared to what she and Keith find later: another hidden passage leading to a series of tunnels sprawling beneath the house.
The marketing hasn’t revealed much more than this, and, while the off-kilter, nervous energy of this nightmare double booking scenario is tense enough, Barbarian has so much more to offer. In many ways, the discovery of a hidden passage nestled within a hidden passage is emblematic of its devious playfulness as it wriggles around the audience’s expectations. Just when it looks to be pinned against the wall, Barbarian manages to slip away, and you can practically hear Cregger snickering each time. He’s playing the audience like a fiddle here, toying with their expectations before meeting them and subverting them all at once. Despite the big narrative swings here, there’s also a sense of utter control: each story pivot feels like being blindsided by precise jabs instead of wild, flailing haymakers.. Considering Cregger’s background in comedy, Barbarian is a remarkably assured horror movie that brims with a sharp sense of purpose, from the painstaking camerawork to the sharp editing.
If nothing else, the stretch where Campbell and Skarsgård reckon with the hidden horrors lurking within this Airbnb from hell is a masterclass horror short. Casting Skarsgård is particularly clever because even without the lingering memory of his turn as Pennywise, his quietly menacing presence is immediately suspect. You’re just waiting for him to peel away his nice guy facade and reveal his nefarious plot. Cregger leans into the expectations here, crafting one ominous image after the next, including a particularly striking reveal of the decaying neighborhood that surrounds this otherwise idyllic house. Tess arrives during a dark, stormy night that conceals the utter desolation and disrepair of an area whose ruin is evident in a harsh sunlight that unveils every boarded up, abandoned home. Like so much of this early stretch, the contrast is utterly alienating, as Cregger exploits the various contrasts, like Skarsgård’s amiable, inviting demeanor with his pointed moments of caginess, or the house’s posh upstairs with its lurid basement of horrors. Something is off—it’s just a matter of uncovering what dwells below the set of cragged stairs leading into the ominous void.
I won’t dare reveal the answer to that. I’ll only say that Cregger pays all of this off in remarkable fashion, mostly because it makes for a complete story. Barbarian could end about a third of the way through, and it would be a killer thrill ride, full of atmospheric dread and rollicking jolts. But holy shit does it ever not stop there, and bless Cragger for it. He doesn’t just keep going either; instead, he darts off in an entirely different direction that finds Justin Long entering the picture as AJ, an actor facing serious allegations of sexual abuse. The abrupt, disorienting shift upends the narrative and deepens the mystery: just when it looks like Cregger is going to provide answers, he raises even more questions. We’re no longer just preoccupied with whatever the fuck we just glimpsed in the bowels of the house: we’re wondering how this story—which unfolds half a continent away—has anything to do with what’s already unravelled.
Watching Cregger connect these dots is delightful because he remains playful throughout. His second act effectively submerges you underwater, grasping for answers like breaths of air as a strange creature terrorizes the characters. The restrained haunted house teases erupt into disorienting spook-a-blast theatrics here, and just when it looks like Cregger will tip his hand, he pulls you back from the brink with an extended sequence that allows him to paint an even more vivid picture. Of all the gambits in Barbarian, this is the most effective, and a textbook example of why showing is almost always more engaging than telling. Unfolding in stark contrast to the throwaway exposition dumps that typically reveal a film’s secrets, this quietly menacing stretch—which features one of our great genre character actors in Richard Brake—also acts as a calm before the climactic storm.
Just as the grim inevitability of the flashback settles in, Cregger yanks you back to the more pressing survival movie at hand. With all his cards upturned on the table, he’s able to finally unleash the thrilling, gory creature feature that’s been bursting to escape in Barbarian. He leans into the rank unpleasantness of his answers with crimson-soaked mayhem and cringe-inducing character moments—and he’s having a blast every step of the way. Cregger’s patient unraveling of his mystery comes with a creeping sense of humor, almost as if he’s trying to stifle a giggle as he toys with the audience. By the end, though, those giggles erupt into unrepentant howling: despite the sordid material, Barbarian invites you to hoot and holler as its characters encounter some truly fucked-up shit that leaves a trail of gnarled corpses in its wake. It’s an uneasy sort of humor where it feels like a director is daring you to laugh at something truly disturbing, but Cregger’s decision to smash cut to the credits with The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” leaves no doubt: Barbarian is incredible splatstick, so the Michigan setting isn’t the only thing that evokes the impish spirit of Sam Raimi.
What’s more, the nature of the beast and the accusations surrounding AJ hint towards a thematically-weighty, socially relevant movie that explores topical issues like economic anxiety and the “Me Too” movement. While that stuff is there for you to dig up if you must, they feel like red herrings because, at the end of the day, this is simply a wild, depraved shit. His treatment of AJ is especially pointed in this respect: just as it looks like Barbarian will explore the nature of good and evil with this character, it swiftly affirms its commitment to vileness. You wouldn’t go to a freakshow expecting a contemplative treatise on the nature of like and existence, after all, and Cregger eagerly becomes a carnival barker here, inviting you to take a peek at his unseemly wares. And like any good showman, he does it with a flair and theatricality that reminds us that unrepentant schlock is a thrilling artform.
“Fun” also shouldn’t be a dirty word, nor should it be reserved for lightweight horror fare: sometimes, there’s just as much fun to be had when the genre gets downright nasty for the sake of it. Barbarian rubs your face in its repugnant horrors before poking you in the side to see if it’s getting a rise out of you, which is arguably one of the toughest tricks to pull off. Whenever a pendulum swings in one artistic direction—and the wave of thoughtful, “elevated horror” from A24 and its ilk have certainly pushed us to one end of the spectrum—it’s bound to yank back. With Barbarian, Cregger provides a much-needed genre whiplash that echoes fellow 2022 efforts Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Studio 666, Orphan: First Kill, and X. To borrow a phrase from the latter, these are all “goddamn fucked-up horror pictures,” and it’s nice that some filmmakers are still going right for the gut these days.
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