"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Barbarian

The trailer for BARBARIAN suggests an intriguing and pretty straight forward horror-thriller idea. Tess (Georgina Campbell, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD) shows up at her Airbnb late on a rainy night and discovers that somehow someone is already staying in it. It’s a scary neighborhood on the outskirts of Detroit, so the other renter, Keith (Bill Skarsgard, ATOMIC BLONDE) lets her come in while they try to figure out what’s going on. They can’t get ahold of the owners, so she sneaks a photo of Keith’s driver’s license (just in case) and reluctantly accepts his offer to take the bedroom while he sleeps on the couch.

He seems very polite and cute, but of course that’s a reason not to trust somebody in a movie like this. Plus the motherfucker played Pennywise! So when weird shit starts happening and she finds a scary secret door in the basement you try to figure out if he’s up to something or if they’re both in trouble together or what. And you can sort of see where it would go from there.

Or that’s what it seems like. One question: why BARBARIAN? Why not, like, OVERBOOKED or SCARE BnB or whatever? Well because it goes a little further off that set up than you might expect, and I’m glad I heard that because it inspired me to go see it opening day.

I’m trying not to build it up like it’s the craziest shit you’ve ever seen, because it’s not. But it’s the kinda shit I like, the kind of horror movie that makes me excited. The right balance of tradition and innovation, of subverting expectations and satisfying them. It does a good job of delivering the tension and suspense of the premise as explained above, and then it gets more fun (and yet so much more horrible) when you find out what’s going on in the basement. It’s a good scare idea with some bursts of chaos, some gross out business, some laughs. More importantly it’s told in an interesting way that makes it more fun. There’s a novelistic structure to it and it really plays with the dynamics of sympathetic vs. unsympathetic protagonists.

Also, I’m happy to say, it is not about grief or trauma. You gotta have some of these that are not about grief or trauma. It does definitely deal with some current themes, but in the preferable way where it’s an added dimension to the horror proceedings and not the only thing that makes them passable. I mean, this is just a good movie.

I’m being vague because I really appreciate the restraint in the advertising campaign and that the movie was able to take me on a ride. There’s not some big plot twist or anything, it’s just that the way it unfolds and keeps you guessing where it’s headed is much of the fun of it. So my advice is if it sounds good so far (and you’re okay with some upsetting stuff) don’t read anything more, go see it, then come back. ‘Cause from here on out I need a SPOILER ZONE to discuss how it all comes together.

***SPOILER ZONE TO DISCUSS HOW IT ALL COMES TOGETHER***

After Tess and Keith go through their dance of distrust and awkwardness, then start to know and like each other (turns out he’s a founding member of some collective of jazz musician squatters or some shit?), Tess accidentally locks herself in the basement, then discovers a hidden passage to a blood-stained room containing only a bed, a bucket and a video camera. Which I gotta assume will figure into the rating she gives this place on Airbnb. While they’re exploring dark scary tunnels under the house there is an abrupt, violent, partial answer to the question of who can be trusted and what’s going on here.

And then it cuts to a sunny highway in California where Justin Long (JEEPERS CREEPERS, DRAG ME TO HELL, TUSK, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS) is driving a convertible, enthusiastically singing along to the radio like a dork. When he takes a conference call on speaker phone we learn that he’s actor A.J. Gillbride, and that’s also when he receives the news that a co-star has accused him of sexual assault, he’s being fired from the show he thought was being picked up, a story is coming out about it tomorrow, and he will need to hire a lawyer. I love how long it leaves us hanging with the question of why exactly we’re following this asshole and what he will have to do with the earlier events.

The answer is that he’s running out of money to pay for the legal defense and needs to sell off some property he owns, which is in Detroit. He goes to one of the houses, which is of course the house. Tess’s truck and luggage and Keith’s toothbrush and shit are still there. He calls the management to complain and is told it hasn’t been rented out in weeks. So if Tess is still alive she’s been down there that long. Uh oh.

And one of the most brilliant character moments in 2022 cinema is that when A.J. discovers all the same horror movie shit that Tess and Keith did earlier – the secret door, the bloody snuff room, the scary stone stairway and tunnel, even the fucking cages – they’re a surprise to him too, but he doesn’t react with horror. Instead he drags a tape measure through the place, excited to increase the square footage in the listing. So we can’t wait to see what’s gonna happen to this fucker.

He’s not just fodder. He becomes the co-lead. Tess finds him, tries to help him not get killed by the savage naked feral inbred woman who has been keeping her captive there. So we’ve got one lead we can root for and one we can root against, but she’s trying to help him so okay, whatever dude, I guess if you’re with her you can survive. If she wants.

The greatest trick it pulls is when, very late in the movie, A.J. makes a little speech about how he doesn’t know if he’s a good person or a bad person, maybe he’s a bad person, but he can’t change that, all he can do is try to make up for it by doing his best to do the right thing now. I totally fell for it. I thought oh no, it wants us to forgive this guy. It wants us to believe that this experience is changing him, that he’s going to find redemption through the gauntlet of horror survival. I mean, I believe people can change, i believe there needs to be room for forgiveness in this world, but this guy has barely acknowledged he even did anything wrong, and thought he could get away with a drunken voicemail half apology, now just because it’s a movie we’re supposed to accept that—

Oh, never mind. He almost immediately gives up on selflessness and does something more cowardly and dishonorable than we could ever have predicted. It’s actually shocking. There were only a few other people in the theater with me, but I heard appalled gasps. A beautiful what the fuck moment which is then multiplied by the absurdity of the action it leads to.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think this is one of the ones that certain faction of horror fans will pejoratively call “A24 horror.” Yet it’s able to step outside of the standard commercial horror format in its storytelling. People who have read my horror novel won’t be surprised that I love the part where it suddenly jumps back 40-some years to tell us about the previous owner of the house (Richard Brake, DEATH MACHINE, HALLOWEEN II, MANDY, 3 FROM HELL, THE RHYTHM SECTION). It’s a really well shot, creepy-as-fuck sequence that reminds me enough of the stalking early in SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE that it might be a reference. Hats off to director of photography Zach Kuperstein (THE VIGIL) and editor Joe Murphy (WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS).

It also made me think of DON’T BREATHE a little bit. It’s got that mix of effective thrills and uncomfortable queasiness, a willingness to go over the line, but leave the most horrible stuff to your imagination, so it can still have a (very dark) sense of humor about some of this craziness. Also its playful pitting of larger than life horror movie evil against an immoral scumbag who doesn’t “deserve” to survive in horror movie terms. I love DON’T BREATHE but I suspect this will go over better with some people, not because it’s necessarily loftier or more respectable, but it at least has one clear good guy to make the more ambiguous elements go down easier.

The more obvious reason I make the comparison is the setting of an abandoned Detroit neighborhood (filmed in Bulgaria), which is used very effectively. There’s a really creepy shot when she’s on the porch the first night and looks around seeing no lights on any of the surrounding houses. During daylight we see that they’re all abandoned with broken windows and graffiti. It gives this sense of isolation, this suburban but empty wasteland, almost post-apocalyptic. Also important: when she finally gets their attention the police are absolutely no help, more through indifference and apathy than incompetence. It’s both a relatable commentary on the current state of things and a pre-emptive rebuttal for whichever wiseguy pulls the “should’ve called 911” card out of their “why I am so much smarter than the characters in horror movies” deck.

There’s obviously a parallel drawn between A.J. and the unnamed psycho who started this whole mess. A.J. has all kinds of excuses in his mind why he’s not at all the same type of monster – he means it when he says, “What is wrong with you!?” to this guy – but maybe somewhere deep down he knows he’s somewhere on that same spectrum of men who see women only as objects for their desire and domination. If not, we do.

By the way, Tess was in town getting a job on a jazz documentary. I wonder if she still got to do the movie and if it turned out okay.

I was surprised to learn that writer/director Zach Cregger is a guy from the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’Know. He was on some sitcoms and directed and starred in the 2009 comedy MISS MARCH, and now all the sudden he made maybe my favorite horror movie of the year. So people can change, it just doesn’t happen overnight.

 

This entry was posted on Monday, September 12th, 2022 at 7:14 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Barbarian”

  1. I honestly had no interest in this one based on the preview. There’s nothing wrong with the preview. It just didn’t pique my interest. Then I saw your tweet Saturday morning, Vern, and decided I wanted to go somewhere with a big HVAC system that could filter out all the smoke in the air and voila. I’m glad you sent out that tweet because this turned out to be a doozy. I’m just heading straight into the spoilers.

    ********SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS***********

    They did a fantastic job of setting up Keith to seem like he was totally in on it and yet he played like he wasn’t so well you never faulted Tess for trusting him. Turned out he seemed so trusting and innocent because he was. Another actor probably could’ve threaded that needle just as well as Skarsgard, but he was so well cast there. I also really liked that Tess never really did anything that made me think, what the fuck are you doing?! Other than going into the house initially, which I never would’ve done, and going into the tunnel initially, which I’m pretty sure I would’ve broken the window to get out before going into that tunnel, but honestly, when you don’t know which genre of movie you’re in, it didn’t seem too out of the realm of possibility. But getting back to the moment she first goes into the house with him. They played that so well! There are so many moments in the world as a woman where you are torn because you everything about a situation makes it seem like it should be reasonable and yet you know that’s not always the case. It’s often a fight between your lizard brain and your logic and honestly, it’s sort of exhausting. But I still wouldn’t have gone into the house. Discussing the movie afterward, it might be the difference between East and West Coast, though. Living most of my life on the West Coast, I know I can hop on the freeway and drive not very far before seeing signs for lodging, but the little time I’ve spent on the East Coast, I know the freeway system is different, so maybe it wouldn’t have been so easy to find another place to stay.

    I’m impressed with how well Cregger did with all of the underlying gender stuff. Like another little moment is just how Tess was able to bury her ego and become the baby for The Woman (this is what I will call her from here on out) and AJ couldn’t take the bottle. I mean, it was literally just minutes since he fell into a cage after being chased through a subterranean tunnel by a naked, feral, monster woman, but still. I totally thought it was going to end with Tess and The Woman dead after he threw her off the tower and him going on his merry way, not really too upset or disturbed, possibly even benefitting from the entire thing, like he gets sympathetic press for being a victim/survivor/hero. I thought that was the underlying theme – straight, white men get to move through the world without much thought or consequence. Like Tess brought up to Keith when saying had their roles been reversed he would’ve thought nothing of coming into the house with her. So, I’m not quite sure what it says that Tess was the survivor. Maybe that women go through a mountain of shit regularly but are survivors, much like The Woman herself.

    What do you all make of the homeless man saying The Woman wasn’t the worst thing in the basement? Do you think he was referring to abductor/father? Obviously he wasn’t much of a threat anymore, but maybe the guy’s info was out of date. Which, I’m just going to let go how this guys knows all this stuff. But if it wasn’t the abductor/father, was there someone else down there? I kind of think there was. Because, who came up out of the basement and opened Tess’ door only to get frightened or startled when Keith started making nightmare noises from the couch and go back into the basement all quiet and sneaky? I don’t think it was The Woman because I don’t equate quiet and sneaky with her. She’d more likely go berserk and attack. Also, when we find Keith in the tunnel he said someone bit him in the darkness. Also, doesn’t seem like The Woman’s style.

  2. SPOILERS
    I think I heard a little too much hype going into this, because I kept waiting for something to set this movie on its head, something earth shattering. It is very well made, and I think this is a director who has some great movies in his future. But I think of horror movies that made me go “holy shit!” in the last few years, and this one seemed pretty straight forward to me. Well done, for sure.
    I think of the Wrong Turn remake/reboot from last year, and THAT pivots in a bonkers way that made my jaw drop. The big twist in Barbarian is that this serial killer and one of his deformed children are living in a secret tunnel beneath an airbnb. Is that such an insane premise that it warrants all the “you must see this before someone spoils it” tweets I saw this week?

  3. Right off the bat when this started I got excited. When you go see every cheap horror movie you get so used to the paint-by-numbers energy of a lot of them. But this one started up and even before anything particularly fresh happened, there was just a sense of assuredness from the camera and the music and sound design.

    Right away you can feel that even if the story doesn’t deliver like you hope (and this one delivered excellently), the director at least knows how to build a sequence. I’d been pretty disappointed by another recent horror flick so this immediately felt like a breath of fresh air to me.

    I didn’t know about this guy being from Whitest Kids U’Know. That’s really interesting because one of the things that I think makes this flick stand out is how it balances humor within the story. Like it is frequently really, really funny and is able to do so without deflating the reality or drama of the situation. It’s pretty cleverly constructed that way, and is particularly a big part of how they get us to enjoy watching a film about particular kind of guy.

  4. Vern: I saw the vaguely pretentious title, a YouTube ad, and Twitter dropping superlatives about it and instinctively started making the jerkoff motion. I was prepared to dismiss this outright, but you made it sound a lot better than what I pictured (what I pictured was tedium + brown hallways + blubbering white girl = this fuckin’ shit again), even if the twist seems to be more or less what the twist ALWAYS is in cases like this. Novelistic storytelling is usually a plus for me, I’m always up for a good SPOILER Bad Ronalding, and I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the HEREDITARY incident was a fluke and this one actually is funny. Like, on purpose even.

    Alright, Vern, you win this round. I will keep an open mind about this horror movie that came out in theaters that the internet likes even though that hasn’t worked out for me in at least a decade.

  5. A quick question about the humor: How much of it is of the cringe variety? I’d rather watch 85 orphans get their eyeballs pulled out with an apple corer than sit through five minutes of two people in a room behaving awkwardly, so that’s gonna affect how much effort I put into seeing this.

  6. MM with the Bad Ronald reference off the top rope. Feel like that was on the 4:30 movie every week growing up.

    One thing that did frustrate me about this, that I haven’t seen mentioned. I am more than willing to let a few moronic decision by the leads and victims in a horror movie pass. The “let’s walk into an unlit room”, “let’s split up”, “let’s throw my boyfriend’s cell phone in the lake” kind of crap. But this movie REALLY pushes it, to the point where it almost felt more like a comedy than a horror movie at times. I saw it in a full theater, and there was one point where a guy yelled out “Oh, come on!” at the lead character. The whole room laughed, and I think had to agree.

  7. JeffG – that’s interesting. I didn’t find that to be the case. What parts are you talking about? Do you mean all the times she was trying to help either Keith or AJ? I wouldn’t have called those typical moronic decisions made by someone in a horror movie because she knew it was scary or dangerous but was making a decision to go through with it anyway to help someone else. I tend to think of “moronic decisions” made by horror movie characters to be more like when they can’t see the obvious signs of danger right in front of their face.

  8. Spoilers
    Lots of silly decisions regarding going back, but even the whole section from when she walks to the gas station, gets the police, and is basically unable to convince them to go into the house. I get that was kind of a gag within itself, about how crappy these cops are. But a lot of the failing to call ANYONE on the phone (I was surprised they didn’t just use the “no service” plot device to get around that. Even early on, the fact that she doesn’t lock her door the first night when she has had her bonding moment with Keith, she doesn’t so much as search him up on Facebook after taking a shot of his license, she doesn’t do anything after he disappears in the basement, other than walk further and further into the dark tunnel, even though he is screaming for help. Hell, even after she runs over the hag, pins her against the house, and just walks away to (shocker) she has disappeared! And she wakes up the following morning, sees the neighborhood they are in, knows she has been double booked in the airbnb, why would she leave all her stuff in the house?

    And I get the whole AJ thing about him checking square footage is more for a laugh than anything, but that was a little much. Even AJ and Tess running into the hiding spot with the homeless person and not just plowing straight ahead to the gas station she was at. The whole scene with AJ hanging out in the basement of the owner/serial killer, watching him rummage through the night stand.

    I am probably nitpicking the hell out of it, and there were more moments, just not remembering them. But there were enough that I felt like it went from really a gritty, down and dirty movie to a silly, ‘let’s have a fun time at the horror movie’ type of film after a while.

  9. Joke’s on him. In Michigan, below-grade space does not count towards the gross square footage of a home.

  10. There’s something to the fact that some of the best horror movies of the past few years are being helmed by sketch comedians. I think there’s a similar flow to stand up/sketches and horror movies. Comedians know the importance of keeping the audience engaged as they take you along for the ride, and know the importance of landing the ending. I think skills that comedians gain at eliciting laughter can be used to cause screams too.

  11. Spoilers?

    Crustacean, they actually note that in the film – he is just hoping to add it in the notes of the listing hoping to add value.

  12. Majestyk, I was waiting for someone else to answer your question about the humor in this, but since no one has, I’ll do it. No, it’s not cringe comedy. I hesitated to answer because I honestly don’t have a very good handle on the humor in this. For one thing, I really don’t think there is much humor, so I’m obviously missing something. I can only think of 3 to 4 times it was used. The most obvious being the measuring tape scene Vern describes in the review. I would say that the humor is more ironical in nature than anything else. One of the other times I think of as humorous is a character says, This Thing has never, ever happened. Only for .2 seconds later to have This Thing happen in a totally bonkers way with ridiculously gruesome consequences. The other ironically humorous moment I’m sure of is the song playing over the credits. Other than that, if there was humor, I missed it. Well, except a silly moment between the 2 people in the house before all the scary stuff happens. I don’t think it’s meant to really be funny. It’s just a goofy moment between the characters, showing their growing connection. I think some people, including Vern, think this part he talks about in the review – “He almost immediately gives up on selflessness and does something more cowardly and dishonorable than we could ever have predicted. It’s actually shocking. There were only a few other people in the theater with me, but I heard appalled gasps. A beautiful what the fuck moment which is then multiplied by the absurdity of the action it leads to,” is humorous and while I can see that it’s shocking and finishes with a batshit moment, I wouldn’t have called it humorous. So, hopefully that helps.

  13. A really good discussion of the film, and an interview with the director, on The Big Picture pod which is well worth listening if you have seen this. It is definitely making me reevaluate it, and has me wanting to see it again.
    The Big Picture pod, btw, is awesome.

  14. I’m down with whoever said this turns into a spookablast at about the Justin Long point, which is kinda the twist–a From Dusk Till Dawn thing where the premise quantums from maybe erotic thriller to SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS The Hills Have Eyes: Urban Harvest. Which is fun… not sure about the scene where AJ essentially confessed to being a rapist, that felt like letting the audience off the hook with “get it? you should hate this guy! Enjoy him being sexually assaulted as punishment for being a sexual assaulter!”

    I feel like a woman as smart as Tess would’ve texted a friend the details of Keith and the double-booking, so after a few days of being incommunicado she’d be declared missing and the cops would’ve searched the house/known she was a missing person when she ran up to them saying she’d been abducted. But I guess nowadays you get to write horror movies with cops that are as useful as a third nipple and excuse it as a political statement. “Ha ha, ACAB, amirite?” Likewise male characters. “Ha ha, Believe Women, amirite?”

    But, you know, spookablast.

  15. Kaplan – here’s what I liked about that moment: it felt truthful. That monologue he gives about how he was “aggressive, but she was down” feels exactly the kind of bullshit a guy like that, who doesn’t want to face up to the kind of monster he is, would tell himself. Total denial, which (character-wise) is a counterpoint to her hyper-vigilance about the meaning of every moment in the first part of the movie. I don’t mind if a movie is trying to make us feel like he sucks, as long as it does it truthfully. And that monologue (delivered perfectly by Justin Long, who was excellent throughout) passed the smell test for me.

  16. I know, they probably did it as naturally as it could be done, and after that the movie goes full horror and there’s not time to get into it. So it is a good time to put all cards on the table. But a part of me wonders if ambiguity wouldn’t be better. You’re already 95% sure they’re not going to redeem the accused rapist, so making it 100% felt a little like a bridge too far. But I do like the idea that he has an epiphany about what a creep he’s been, only to immediately forget that ‘epiphany’, and *then* go right back into “I’m not *that* bad” when it’s convenient. It’s just enough subversion to liven up an otherwise conventional monster movie ending.

  17. Yeah. I actually fell for his moment of self-realization, so it all worked well for me — I was part of the collective gasp when he then SPOILERS her off the SPOILER SPOILER, and I really enjoyed it. I see what you’re saying, that having enough ambiguity is critical to believing this character has the potential to be redeemed in the narrative. But as a viewer I was really glad that the movie chose the moment it did to answer the exact questions I was wondering at that exact moment: “What are the facts?” (yes, there was sexual intercourse) and “what’s his perception of what happened?” (he can’t acknowledge what he did). Without those questions being addressed at that point in the narrative I think it would have been a speed bump, we don’t want to still be wondering about those answers once his narrative dovetails with hers. Another reason I think it didn’t bother me that he was being painted unambiguously as a rapist is that in the horror genre, bad characters don’t necessarily need to be redeemed in order to triumph. You’ve got 50/50 chance at a nihilistic ending in horror, so who knows while you’re watching it?

  18. Yeah, I think that aspect works perfectly because first it messes with my contradictory instincts of “this guy is a piece of shit” and wanting a doofus character played by Justin Long who’s trapped in a dungeon to be able to escape. And I suspect that my response to his little speech – thinking “oh no, they’re trying to give him some bullshit redemption arc” was exactly the intended reaction, because it gives you so little time to be mad about it before letting you off the hook (and getting more mad at him).

  19. Long’s apology/non-apology voicemail worked very well for me, I actually thought it was a great moment. I think it was his lawyer, maybe his friend, who knew he was going to do it, warning him earlier against making the call. It just builds on how self absorbed the character is. And it makes the fact that he is trying to tape measure a basement with a torture room all the more understandable. Yes, I think a lot of it is played for laughs, but the voicemail scene seemed entirely believable.

  20. SPOILERS

    Dont know about you, but MY favorite part of was when Tess first goes down the stairs to help the Skarsgard, and an elderly couple, clearly in the wrong theater and VERY hearing impaired, loudly enter and make their way to the front row of the empty theater with a bright flashlight and stay for 10 minutes, with the flashlight on, before realizing their mistake and loudly leaving.

    Pure cinema!

    In all seriousness, I dug this a lot. Everyone saying to avoid previews and spoilers et al. made me think there was some bonkers stuff about to happen, like Malignant or something. Liked how this was more low key but still delivered on multiple levels.

  21. I liked it. Yeah, I think the actual plot is pretty conventional for horrow and it’s more the structure that makes it feel unique, though maybe with a bit of a downside due to other factors

    SPOILERS

    SPOILERS

    SPOILERS

    The move having two different acts of build-up to get to the same point gives it a bit of a stop and start feel and the runtime kinda seems to require having to leave out some substantial stuff. It seems odd to me that Tess’s WEEKS of captivity are completely off-screen, and I think it’s because I think we had that big cliffhanger moment where she meets The Mother, then we have to wait to learn what happened. If they switched the two acts around so we first meet her when Long does, and then immediately flashback to show who she was and how she got there, we’d have gotten enough of a question and answer to not care so much about that missing time. Though the movie would have to be marketed differently and Long’s section would feel different without the dramatic irony.

    I’m also curious as to what the Mother and her dad were living off of if he was bed bound and couldn’t leave to get groceries. Was she hunting and stealing shit when she went out at night? That could been another thing so show.

    The ambiguity about Long in some respect feels a little pointless because with the conventional handling of those things, especially in the current climate, when has the outcome of this sort of plot element ever been different? It’s very hard for a writer/filmmaker to depict a rape accusation as false and not come across like they’re not trying to push a misogynistic agenda. It would take a lot of work, and given the movie presents only one side (the accuser doesn’t appear and her only line is a voicemail message)and that side is pretty damning to itself with the conduct of the guy, did anyone REALLY think it was plausible he didn’t do it? GONE GIRL’s the only movie off the top of my head that managed to pull off such a thing, and that’s because it was with a side-character being a victim of a character and a story that wasn’t meant to be all that grounded.

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