Barbarian is a welcome new member of a group of horror movies that makes you think while it scares you. This subset of the genre includes movies like Freaky, Get Out and It Follows and doesn’t have an official designation that I’m aware of. I collectively refer to them as “brainy horror”, which is lame, I know. (Impale me on a spike if you must.) Like those movies, Barbarian is first and foremost a top-notch horror movie, filled with scares and enough disturbing images to fuel nightmares. It’s also incredibly devious in how it uses your familiarity with the genre to subvert your expectations at every turn. Most importantly, it earns its place alongside the other noteworthy brainy horror movies by being a very entertaining film from beginning to end.
On the surface, writer-director Zach Cregger constructs Barbarian from several well-worn horror movie tropes, particularly “the handsome and charming killer” and “the haunted house with the monster lurking in the darkness”. While he uses both plot devices very effectively, he also surrounds them with context that gives the entire movie a degree of resonance that surprised me. In other words, Cregger uses old tools to build a house that looks familiar but is decidedly different on the inside.
Instead of just delivering “the goods”, Barbarian demands more of itself and becomes a movie that is as equally scary as it is insightful. It deftly uses its horror movie structure to weigh in on a wide range of topics, including gender politics, gender roles, sexual assault, implicit bias, racial prejudice and urban blight. Rest assured, this movie is not homework. The fun part is recognizing how slyly the movie asks questions about its subject matter, refusing to dumb things down for the sake of a cheep jump-scare. The movie also has a great sense of humor that ranges from ridiculous to offensive to pitch-black. Barbarian succeeds not because it reinvents the monster movie, but because it re-imagines what it can be about. Highly Recommended.
On a dark and stormy night in Detroit, a young documentarian named Tess (Georgina Campbell) finds her B&B is double-booked with handsome stranger Keith (Bill Skarsgård). Instead of leaving, he offers to share the place with her. With nowhere else to go, she reluctantly accepts but takes some precautions. (She locks the bathroom door and declines to drink tea he made for her. Nobody ever wants to die over chamomile.) While Keith understands Tess’ concerns over their “meet-awkward” arrangement, he doesn’t like that she suspects him to be a psycho killer. Intent on proving his nice guy bona fides, he offers to split a fresh bottle of wine with her. Keith’s plan works, as the two have a pleasant evening getting to know each other. Tess is in town for an interview, while Keith is scouting locations for work. Keith has seen her previous documentary–an amazing coincidence. Whether it was the wine or that she feels more trusting of Keith, Tess neglects to lock the bedroom door.
Later that night, Tess is awakened by moans coming from the living room, where Keith is sleeping on the couch. Fortunately, he’s only having a nightmare, and not doing that. When Tess checks on him, something closes the door leading to the basement. Perhaps Keith isn’t the namesake barbarian of the movie’s title after all. The next morning, Tess is shocked to discover that every other house on the block is abandoned and dilapidated. (Yes, another horror movie has decided to shine a spotlight on blight in the City of Detroit.) When Tess returns from her interview, she’s frightened by a homeless person yelling at her to not go into the house. She runs inside and remains there when 911 is unable to send a patrol car over.
Hours pass quietly and Tess needs to pee. There’s no paper products upstairs, but she spots toilet paper in the basement. Something unseen closes the door behind her, and Tess is without her phone. She finds a secret door that reveals a dark passageway. Further exploring leads to what appears to be a torture room, complete with a stained mattress, video camera on a tripod and a bloody handprint on the wall. Keith finally returns home and lets Tess out of the basement. The guy that he is, he dismisses her fear as hysteria and checks out the supposed torture room for himself. When he doesn’t return, Tess goes after him. The two stumble upon each other in the darkened passageway, and Keith says that something bit him. A hideous monster (Matthew Patrick Davis) rushes in and kills Keith. Tess screams and the screen goes black. Cut to sunny LA. (Not a typo.)
AJ (Justin Long) drives his convertible along a curving California highway, happily singing along to Donovon’s “Riki Tiki Tavi”. He receives a call from two Hollywood types who tell him that he’s been #MeToo’d by a coworker who has accused him of rape. The Hollywood types also tell him that he’s been dropped from the show that just was picked up for a pilot. (For some reason, Aziz Ansari came to mind.) AJ sees his agent, who recommends he sell his home in LA to cover his legal costs and promptly drops him as a client. The only bright spot for AJ is that he has a rental property in Michigan he can stay at while his legal battle carries out. Can you guess what that property is?
Back in his hometown, AJ find Tess’ luggage and calls up the company managing the property to bitch. They say that nobody has been staying there for weeks. That evening, AJ meets an old friend for drinks and tries to convince him that the whole thing back in LA was consensual. (I don’t know what the friend makes of AJ’s defense but the camera doesn’t buy it.) The next morning, AJ figures he can sell the property for more than it’s currently valued at if he includes the basement. While measuring, he stumbles upon the same hidden passageway and torture room. He humorously measures it all, oblivious that a torture room is very problemating to include on a listing.
The monster that killed Keith appears and chases AJ into a pit. Tess tells AJ to drink from the baby bottle the monster gives them or “the mother” (as she’s listed in the credits) will become upset. Freaked out and disgusted, AJ ignores Tess’ advice and is pulled out by the mother. Tess escapes the pit and is helped out of the house by Andre, the same homeless person she ignored earlier. He tells her that the mother isn’t the worst thing in the house and not to go back. Tess feels bad about leaving AJ behind and seeks out help from the police.
At first, the police peg Tess as a whacked-out crack head because she’s Black and wearing dirty clothes. She’s persistent, however, and they drive her back to the house. When they arrive the police refuse to break in because she doesn’t have the key and no identification. They state that they could arrest her for breaking a window and leave to handle another call. (I’m sure Detroit’s Finest took a pretty dim view of all this.)
Barbarian flashes back to 1982, where we meet Frank (Richard Brake) shopping in a general store. He tells the floor person that he needs supplies for a home birth. On his way out, he spots an attractive young woman and follows her home. He dons a worker’s uniform and knocks on her door. He pretends to check her bathroom pipes and unlocks the bathroom window. When Frank returns home his neighbor tells him that he’s leaving and that the rest of the neighborhood is likely to follow suit. Frank, uninterested in the news or his neighbor, tells him that he isn’t going anywhere.
When the monster heard Tess escaping, she left AJ alone. He sets out to leave, but gets lost. He stumbles on a dark and obscenely dirty room where Frank lies bedridden. AJ believes that the old man is being held captive and gives him water and moves his nightstand closer to his bed. When AJ plays one of the old man’s video tapes, he quickly learns that he’s just been kind to a serial killer. Fortunately for AJ, Frank uses the gun in the nightstand to kill himself. (The irony that the only person AJ is nice to in the entire movie is Frank wasn’t lost on me.)
On her descent back into hell, Tess is shot by AJ. He claims he didn’t know it was her, that he fired the gun out of fear. (The mother is extremely frightening, so I gave AJ that one.) The two leave the house and head to Andre’s “home’. He claims they will be safe there, but the mother appears and kills Andre, beating him to death with his own arm. (There probably are worse ways to go, but that has to be in the top five.) AJ and Tess climb up a water tower, only to be pursued by the mother. In an effort to save his own skin, he pushes Tess off the tower. His plan works because the mother dives after Tess.
AJ heads down to the street to confirm that both Tess and the mother are dead. To his surprise, both are still alive. To AJ’s further surprise, the mother kills him by crushing his skull. (Another top five way to go.) Unwilling to go back to the basement from hell and resume being the mother’s baby, Tess shoots the mother in the head. Interspersed with the credits are shots of Tess walking back to the same gas station. Hopefully, the cops she encounters this time will be a bit more helpful.
The cleverness of Barbarian begins and ends with its title. That may sound like sarcasm, but I couldn’t be more sincere. Let me explain. If the movie had a title like “Double Booked B&B” or “The Worst Rental in Detroit”, I would have interpreted the movie completely differently. By itself, the plot isn’t extraordinary. The characters explore the dark recesses of an underground lair, only to be chased and killed by a monster. There are some allusions to how gender roles dictate our perceptions and our reactions to certain events, and these definitely add texture to what transpires. But it is the title of the movie that forced me to reevaluate what I was seeing every step of the way.
I can’t think of another instance where the title of a movie had such an outsized impact on my overall experience with the movie itself. Horror movies typically have a title that clues you into a movie’s hook before you see it. For Don’t Breathe, the tension mounts while you wait for someone to screw up and breathe (or make the slightest sound). You’re Next keeps you guessing as to who will be the next victim to be killed by a booby-trap. Insidious was particularly insidious in how it convinced me that one demon was the insidious one being referred to in the title, only to reveal an even more insidious one in the very end.
Perhaps the closest example I can come up with was a movie that isn’t strictly a horror movie: A Clockwork Orange. I remember watching the movie for the first time, wondering what exactly the title was referring to throughout. Years later I learned that the reason for my confusion was due to Kubrick omitting a key scene from the book that explained the origin of the title.
The clever aspect of Barbarian is that the title isn’t just a description of the monster in the movie: it’s actually a question to the audience. Initially, I assumed that the question was, “Who is the barbarian?” When the movie seques from the shocking conclusion of the first act to sunny California for the second act, I began to realize that my assumption about what was expected of me as a viewer was wrong. Ingeniously, Barbarian asks us to view each character in terms of their actions and ultimately decide which character was the most barbaric of them all. Like a good party game, the answer to that question will vary from person to person.
In its way, Barbarian takes what could have been a very standard, jump-scare monster movie that one would watch passively and presents us with something far more intriguing. Like a murder mystery, it requires us to pay attention to what happens every step of the way. The difference being that instead of mentally cataloging and interpreting clues to determine whodunnit, Barbarian progressively discloses information that forces us to interpret not only what we are currently seeing, but also to reinterpret what has come before.
The first character the movie offers up as potentially being the barbarian is Keith. His lack of chivalry when he learns that Tess also booked the house for the night. Instead of offering to leave the BNB for Tess, he says that she can stay in the bedroom and lock the door while he sleeps on the couch. He never offers to leave. Whether he should have or shouldn’t have depends on your view of gender roles in the year 2022. If men and women are indeed on equal footing, then he was within his rights to stay. He was the first to arrive, after all.
Given the odd nature of their “meet cute”, the question of whether Keith is “up to something” lingers. He tries to be nice to Tess, making her a cup of tea and then offering her wine. Is he trying to drug her? The fact that he’s seen a documentary that Tess was a part of is strange. Is he really a stalker? Does he actually own the BNB and decided to stay the night once he found that a beautiful woman would be there? He seems charming and friendly. Is that just a front before he imposes his will upon her? Keith’s presumed barbarity is less clear when Tess awakens him from a nightmare, and something unseen closes a door. There’s someone (or something) else in the house, so I began to feel that the barbarian was someone else yet to be revealed. When the monster shows up and kills Keith, I figured the monster was the barbarian. Then AJ happened.
As mentioned above, the introduction of AJ is one of the most disorienting seques I’ve experienced in a movie. The shift from the horrific underground cavern to AJ driving and singing on an LA highway was so tonally jarring, I wondered aloud what in the heck was going on. When AJ receives a call and gets the bad news about a co-star accusing him of rape, the movie’s true intent started to become clearer. After all, what act is not as barbaric as killing someone than rape? Is AJ the barbarian in question? As AJ’s character came into focus, it became clear that the movie isn’t about one barbarian, but at least two.
At this point in the movie, all I knew for sure was that Keith was not the barbarian, there was a monster and now AJ, who could easily be described as an entitled douchebag. I didn’t believe his protestations of innocence, but the movie didn’t provide any concrete evidence that would let me conclude with absolute certainty that he was guilty. (I don’t want to get into an “all women should be believed argument here. I’m just trying to interpret the text as best as I can.)
The fact that AJ shoots Tess can be interpreted as a scared individual shooting out of fear. In the end, when he throws Tess off of the water tower to save himself, it’s clear that he’s a barbarian. But what about Tess? She shoots the monster that saved her life because she doesn’t want to be imprisoned. And what about the father of the monster? Certainly a man who abducts and rapes scores of women over decades is the definition of barbarism.
As I said earlier, I’m convinced that the movie is designed like a party game, with the audience being asked to weigh the actions of the characters and rank them in terms of their barbarity. I’m going to decline to go on the record here for several reasons. First, I believe that each viewer’s answer will be different, like a psychological exam. Second, I don’t want my ranking to influence yours. Finally, I don’t want to go on the record and select a character that the internet deems a bad choice and wind up being ostracized on social media for the rest of my life. I will state that Tess is the least barbaric one of the bunch.
If you feel that my “rank the barbarian” take is a stretch, Barbarian also includes a particularly deft skewering of human behavior, specifically in the area of how we make decisions. While some of the actions taken by the characters certainly fall under “horror movie thinking” (a.k.a. being dumb), the movie makes a point of showing how people chose one action over another based on stereotypes, prejudices and incomplete information, often producing disastrous results.
Given that Tess is the main character of the movie, she offers the most examples of the disastrous results of flawed decision-making. At the outset, her gut tells her to leave the BNB and find somewhere else to stay. However, she’s easily talked out of that course of action by Keith with his “there’s a pharmacy convention in town, everything is booked” explanation. At first, her decision to stay seems incredibly stupid, but as the night wears on, she’s succumbing to the “nice guy” fallacy. Tess lets her guard down because Keith is friendly, handsome and has seen her documentary. She knows nothing about him, but she trusts him because of how he looks and acts.
Keith’s overall likeability leads her to follow after him when he explores the house’s underground passageways. Instead of running to seek help, Tess puts aside her fear to look for him. At that point, she doesn’t know whether Keith is in trouble or if he’s the man behind the video camera in the torture room. Tess puts her personal safety at risk because she believes that a man she’s only known for a few hours is a nice guy. Later, her prejudice towards homeless people causes her to ignore the warnings of Andre and go back into the house.
Generally speaking, Barbarian takes a dim view of snap judgements. As noted above, all of Tess’ decisions involving Keith are based on either superficial and very limited information. She freaks out when Andre tries to warn her not to go back into the house. He’s a homeless person, so her innate prejudice tells her to consider him as dangerous and do the very thing Andrew is trying to warn her against.
AJ mostly acts stupidly, but he also succumbs to poor snap judgment when he stumbles upon Frank. AJ assumes that because Frank is old and bedridden, he’s being held prisoner. With no knowledge of what Frank has done, AJ kindly gives him water and moves the bed stand that contains a gun. One videotape later, AJ quickly realizes that the one person he’s been nice to is a monster.
Barbarian saves its harshest indictment of snap judgments for the police. The police take one look at Tess after she escapes and decide solely on her dirty clothes and disheveled appearance that she’s a drug addict. As someone who’s lived outside Detroit for most of my life, I’m made aware daily that the city suffers from a high degree of crime and drug use. So I understand their initial dismissal of her pleas for help. Later, when Tess asks them to enter the house to find AJ, they make up nonsense arguments to respond to an incoming call of shots fired instead. I know that the Detroit Police Department is far from perfect and has had serious issues over the years, but I’d have to believe that members of the force were less than pleased with this fictional depiction of them.
The movie also shows how snap judgements made by women often put them directly into danger from predators. Back in 1982, Frank’s next intended victim assumes that he works for the Department of Public Works because he wears a uniform with a patch on it. Barbarian seems to imply that women who inherently trust male authority figures, or men who look and act nice, are easy prey. The movie makes its case by having the audience presume what Frank eventually did to that homemaker in the past, as well as what has befallen Tess in the present day. The movie isn’t saying that all women are potentially victims of violence from men, but that they should definitely be on their guard at all times.
While I’ve given the plot very high praise, it isn’t perfect. It’s possible that what I would consider to be plot holes were left to be answered in a sequel. For example, how were Tess and Kevin double-booked for the same place? Why was the B&B the only nice-looking house on the block? Why did the house have a huge network of underground passageways? Did Frank create them, or did he stumble upon them and decide to put them to “good” use? (My wife thought they were tunnels leftover from bootlegging in Detroit’s early days.) What happened to all of Frank’s victims? Clearly, a good movie doesn’t need to answer every question it raises. With Frank and The Mother dead, I can envision the B&B will become the location for loosely-connected sequels, like an anthology, where the mythology of the house can be further explored.
I hadn’t heard of Zach Cregger before seeing Barbarian. I was surprised to learn that this was actually the third movie he’s directed. Based on their IMDB ratings, I suspect that the other two (Miss March and The Civil War on Drugs) aren’t anywhere near as good as this movie. I’m guessing Cregger’s claim to fame is directing all fifty-three episodes of “The Whitest Kids U’Know”, a show I’ve never watched outside of a few sketches on YouTube. It’s early to draw comparisons, but given his similar background in sketch comedy, I can see Cregger forging a directorial career similar to Jordan Peele. Perhaps having a sense of humor is helpful when it comes to finding new ways to freak audiences out.
Regardless of his origins, Cregger’s direction is rock solid here. Given the micro budget of this movie (reportedly $4.5M), the way he utilizes the tools at his disposal borders wizardry. He has a creepy basement, an even creepier set of underground passageways, a scary monster and darkness and shadows. While those elements will work to keep the audience on edge in every competently directed horror movie, Cregger keeps them primal and never oversells them. Instead, he sells them for what they are: primal things that scare us. Most importantly, he never tries to reach beyond his grasp by including some laughable special effects like It Follows.
Cregger also gets very convincing performances from his lead actors. Most people know Bill Skarsgård from his turn as Pennywise in It, but I remembered him from the lackluster Netflix series Hemlock Grove. I stopped watching the series after the first season because it didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to be scary, but I remembered Skarsgård’s performance as the son who didn’t know he was an Upir (vampire). Then as now, he is very good at playing a handsome, easygoing guy who may or may not be a monster. Cregger had a lot of confidence in killing off his one marquee actor in the project, but it was a brilliantly violent death and I’m guessing Skarsgård got a kick out of being on the project.
Georgina Campbell is excellent as Tess, a character I pegged as the “final girl” the moment she appeared on screen. After Kevin’s shocking death in the first act, she carries the movie. A noteworthy performance in a horror movie can often make a career (hello, Jamie Lee Curtis), so I wouldn’t be shocked to see her in some high profile projects going forward.
Justin Long has been around forever. I remember his first acting role in Galaxy Quest from way back in 1999. I’ve seen him in several movies since then, but nothing really stands out like his performance in Barbarian. I believe few will forget his performance as AJ, an entitled asshole who is also incredibly stupid. Tape-measuring the torture room will go down as one of the most inane (and funniest) things a horror movie character has ever done to put themselves directly into harm’s way.
One last thing: Is Donovan now the go-to singer for horror movies? Zodiac and The Conjuring both used “Hurdy Gurdy Man” to creepy effect. Now Barbarian has given new life to the long-forgotten “Riki Tiki Tavi”. I can imagine there’s a horror filmmaker out there with designs of putting “Mellow Yellow” or “Sunshine Superman” to similar use.