Horror should do two things: the first is to leave the audience thinking differently. If you hear a cello every time you enter the ocean, or you keep checking for shadows behind the shower curtain when staying over in some remote motel, then you’ve successfully changed the way a person thinks. The second is, and I can’t stress this enough, horror must be unpredictable. Keeping the audience on the edge of their seat before lifting them off it is a difficult needle to thread. But now and then a movie comes along that does both. Ladies and Gentleman, may I introduce you to Barbarian (2022).
Zack Cregger – Carefully Crafting Horror
Director Zach Cregger flays the flesh from this embracing chiller by keeping the cast to a minimum and winding the tension tighter than a noose around the neck. Georgina Campbell plays Tess Marshall, a woman who has rented an Airbnb in Detroit before a big interview the next day, but unbeknownst to her, Keith, played by Bill Skarsgård, has already rented the property. Sounds like the beginnings of a romance, right? Sure, swap out the two principal actors for, say, Zack Efron and Lily Collins, and you’ve got a saccharine little romcom where love prevails against all odds. But Barbarian isn’t about love. Least not in the way you think.
In a time when mistrust is just as efficient as Mace, the simple premise of girl meets boy, boy asks girl to stay the night at a double-booked house, girl discovers a hidden door in the house’s basement that includes a room with a bloody handprint, a heavily stained bed, and video camera on tripod, you’d forgive Tess for being a tad paranoid. But like the house she finds herself in, not everything is what it seems. Let’s take Keith: the cynical among us may perceive his shy, awkward manner as something disingenuous, and more a ruse to win over the vulnerable, albeit street smart Tess. That Skarsgård’s last horror outing involved him donning a clown outfit and ripping the arm off a young boy from a storm drain, only helps confirm this bias. But director Zach Cregger avoids that trope with a scene that can open parts of you that should remain closed unless seated on the toilet.
In truth, Cregger navigates most horror tropes with aplomb. The basement steps don’t break in his movie. Tess initially refrains from entering the basement’s spooky hidden corridor by uttering Jordan Peele’s most recent movie title. And, when in the darkest recess of the basement and all Hell is breaking loose, the tension breaks suddenly as we watch Justin Long sing Riki Tiki Tavi by Donovon while driving his red Porsche through the LA hills. As mentioned, the key to a great horror is unpredictability. Don’t forget that.
Justin Long, Professional Sociopathic Narcissist
Cregger also has time to address Hollywood’s toxic landscape of male oppression in Long’s character, AJ. Though more a catalyst to force AJ into selling the house Tess and Keith have rented from him, the Me-Too subplot has enough power to make you instantly dislike AJ. That he mistreats a MacBook in one scene, only confirmed my distaste for the man. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his moments. During one of the funnier scenes in the movie, we see him measuring up the secret basement area, presumably because dungeons are in high demand in Detroit, completely ignoring the blood-stained human crates and torture rooms in order to make a profit. Serving at this stage as comic relief and the selfish antagonist akin to the mayor of Amity, AJ inadvertently becomes the glue that binds the tryptic of stories that make up Barbarian, uniting depraved and tragic characters of the past with Tess’s final girl.
Horror Through Obscurity
But what is Barbarian truly about? Yes, I’m acutely aware I’ve been dodging most of the plot here. In some ways, it is a story about love, of wanting something beyond the reach of many normal folk. It is about family, and how it defines a person. It’s also a movie that you shouldn’t know too much about. Like the more recent Speak No Evil, or Goodnight Mommy, to know too much about Barbarian will dilute the experience. Remember, for horror to be great, it needs two things: to change the way you think, and to be unpredictable. I can guarantee the next time you rent an Airbnb, you won’t visit the basement. And if you do, you’ll think twice before entering any secret door, because Barbarian will condition your mind to think that beyond its threshold is something wholly unpredictable, and darker than the shadows that cling to it.