In this month’s edition of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable,” I noted that I was torn about Zach Cregger’s new horror film, Barbarian. Since its premiere at San Diego Comic-Con, the movie has gotten some very high praise from fans as well as respected creatives (I mentioned Edgar Wright in the column as an example), but I couldn’t shake the bad first impression the trailer had left on me, that of a naïve ingenue who arrives at a double-booked rental property, doesn’t leave, and eventually gets caught in a subterranean death trap.
It all just seemed very shallow. One of the most infuriating clichés in horror is that of the oblivious protagonist who ignores clear red flags. I also didn’t care for the flimsy setup of an Airbnb, as it feels like a lame shoehorn of a popular app in place of logic, and honestly, you’re almost asking for trouble when you agree to rent a stranger’s house sight unseen. Maybe that’s an unfair assumption on my part, but even in the shittiest chain hotel, there is someone accountable and responsible for the quality of your stay, whereas with private homes it’s largely left to chance. The film’s main character even mentions that she booked a month in advance, so there’s no excuse not to do one’s due diligence and just make sure you can stay at a normal hotel, so literally everything that follows in this movie is avoidable.
But there was something that stuck out to me amongst the recommendations I saw online, again from filmmakers who know their craft and know what they’re talking about when they endorse something. A good number of them said things akin to, “Go in cold. Don’t read plot details. Let yourself be surprised.”
That intrigued me. Maybe the trailer was obfuscating a better story than the one it implied. Normally I’m very much against a dishonest preview trying to sell a good movie that simply doesn’t exist. But what if it was the rare opposite this time, where a bad trailer intentionally hides a good movie so as not to give up the ghost? Could it be that Cregger just gave us the weak framing device because he had to present something as marketing material? What if, just once, the cover didn’t give away the whole book, and there was a much more engaging story if you took the time to open it up? Could this be the exception that proves the rule?
The answer is a qualified yes to all. This isn’t to say that Barbarian is the greatest thing since graphically and violently sliced bread, but it is a well-crafted, smart, gory, sneakily funny, and ultimately surprising entry that will satisfy – and legitimately scare – willing audiences. Cregger gets high-concept moments out of what is essentially a B-movie premise, injecting a shocking degree of earnestness into what could have easily been a gratuitous waste of time.
As writer and director, Cregger succeeds on the two most important points, i.e. the script and the visual presentation. Yes, the setup is basic and honestly kind of stupid, but he clearly has fun playing on audience expectations and tropes. The film itself literally starts with our hero, Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell, probably best known for her appearances on Broadchurch and Black Mirror), arriving at her rented house on “a dark and stormy night,” while a ghoulish chorus of wailing voices plays in the background like something straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey whenever someone approaches the monolith (there are a couple of apparent Stanley Kubrick homages throughout, mostly in the score and in the use of wide angle lenses for several key shots).
This opening, like the teaser itself, is just the first of many traps that Cregger sets to test your preconceived notions. The next is the introduction of Keith, played by Bill Skarsgård, who has also booked the house where Tess was planning to stay (did it on a different app, hence the issue, which is at least a plausible way to get around the inane inciting incident). Skarsgård, who also takes a producer title, was almost certainly cast because he can effortlessly play creepy. Hell, even in their worst moments, the It movies were elevated because of his very convincing turn as Pennywise.
In a more conventional – and let’s just say it, lazy – horror movie, Keith would instantly reveal himself as a sleazy predator too clever for his own good who tries to victimize Tess until she either dies (opening the door for another heroine) or fights back. Instead, Cregger takes the time to let us get to know both Keith and Tess, showing us two fleshed out people well beyond the one-note characterization they would otherwise get in lesser productions. The script, and the more than able performances, go out of their way to show that appearances aren’t what they would seem, even within the basic trappings of genre, so that *gasp* we might actually give a crap about what happens to them. The same goes for Justin Long as A.J., who comes along later in the film. Even when they’re flawed (some deeply and disturbingly), there’s a basic level of empathy and realism granted to the leads, allowing the audience to see them as human beings rather than pieces on a blood-soaked chessboard, and without going into too much detail about the actual story (seriously, Wright et al were completely right about going in with as little foreknowledge as possible; I’m doing my best not to give away ANYTHING), I can say that this tactic makes for genuinely surprising, shocking, and scary turns once the terror gets going.
From a visual standpoint, Cregger definitely borrows some elements from the greats who came before him, but the execution is filled with delightfully fucked up touches that put new coats of paint on very familiar surfaces. No better is that exemplified than with the main setting of the film, the ill-fated Detroit rental house on Barbary Street (hence the title, as a resident of Barbary would be a “barbarian” as an unfortunate and hyper-specific demonym). The literal difference between night and day presents an unexpected eerie angle, as the house is the only one that’s maintained on a road that is otherwise entirely dilapidated. A carved basement stairwell is wonderfully designed to look like a sickening throat swallowing its eventual victims down its gravelly gullet. Like so many classic films of its kind, small stylistic choices and prop placements hint at the threat long before it’s truly revealed. Cregger even plays with the age old crutch of creaking doors in a way that feels almost alarmingly innovative in its simplicity. This all comes together to create an atmosphere that makes the scares land when they come. I counted five jump scares in the film (so the Jump Fail Rule almost came into play), but honestly, in a rare case of proper execution, at least three of them were legitimately unexpected, rendering them as justified.
There are bits and pieces that don’t really stand up to basic scrutiny. Some moments of introspection are ultimately meaningless. Roadblocks and obstacles to the resolution are set up here and there that feel like they only exist to pad the runtime (a mostly very well-paced 105 minutes). A homeless character (played by Jaymes Butler) serves little purpose other than misdirection, even though he kind of reminded me fondly of Walt Gorney’s “Crazy Ralph” from the first two Friday the 13th films. There are some serious questions and surface-level explorations of gender roles, sexuality, and abuse that are never really paid off. A scene where A.J. speaks to his mother over the phone could have easily been cut and nothing would have been lost in the main story.
It’s a bunch of little stuff, but it adds up. If there’s a true fault with the film, it’s that Cregger relies too heavily on the (let me be clear, VERY EFFECTIVE) shock value in his story to keep the audience engaged. It works quite well in the moment, to the point that there will be times when you can feel adrenaline coursing through your veins, and you will have to catch your breath in the lighter, funnier scenes. But once that rush wears off, and you take the time to assess what you just saw, you will notice those details on the margins that don’t make a lot of sense, if any, even within the context of this movie’s universe and the suspension of disbelief.
But don’t let that discourage you. Follow the advice of those in the know. Go in cold. Don’t read plot details. Let yourself be surprised. If you do, then you’ll be along for one hell of a ride. Don’t ignore the flaws, but do like I’m doing now, and process them after the fact so you can appreciate the larger work in spite of them. Because Zach Cregger has shown here the ability to toy with audience expectations just enough to lure you into his game, and you won’t feel bad at all for playing along.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you call 2022 a good or bad year for horror so far? Seriously, if you know you’re traveling somewhere a month in advance, why wouldn’t you just go to a damn Holiday Inn or something? Let me know!