Barbarian is a movie held together with duct tape and Elmer’s glue, which doesn’t always have to be a knock against a project if it works. This is especially true for horror movies, where some of the most thrilling entries maintain a certain DIY air about them. Of course, as often as not that less-than-wholly-professional air is manufactured, sort of like a viral marketing campaign.
The campaign for Barbarian was certainly successful, using the kind of classic night vision footage of early screening audiences gasping and screaming that Paranormal Activity perfected over 15 years ago. Other elements also felt familiar: the stark red-and-black poster, the bold serif font on the monolithic title reminiscent of pulpy ’80s mass market paperbacks, and, to top it all off, a lean, almost narratively bereft teaser trailer that leaves you scratching your head, in a good way. Hard not to think of James Wan’s superior Malignant, which was released during the same weekend last year. The difference, beyond Wan’s mastery of melodrama and the truly bonkers but controlled execution of his film’s setpieces, is that Malignant is a film that stands confidently on its own no matter if the main twist has been spoiled. It is, by now, a cult hit even though it failed to make back its modest budget at the box office due the still-stunned theater market following relaxed COVID restrictions.
Reviews for Barbarian, embargoed until two days before the film’s premiere, skirted annoyingly around any plot-heavy details in order to praise a “brilliant,” “clever,” “bonkers” surprise hit that rivaled the filmographies of horror vets like Wes Craven and John Carpenter. For the people who give Rotten Tomatoes scores any legitimate credence, such hyperbolic secrecy is enticing. But this “spoiler-free” pussyfooting, which in the most egregious instances can barely, in good conscience, be called actual criticism, is often just a condition of early press screenings, particularly with releases from major studios. The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee noted “a strictly worded pre-screening email” in his own Barbarian review. But he’s one of few critics who seemed to question the reason why spoilers needed to be protected so diligently. Ideally, juicy plot details for a horror movie serve to enhance the experience of the story, rather than amount to the entire experience. The film has to be more than just a stupid twist. So, let’s start with spoilers.
The monster, as it turns out, is mundane systemic misogyny as opposed to any supernatural force or nightmarish serial killer. Sort of. The film wants it both ways. Dressed with a hard R-rating that masks griminess more than anything approaching the profane or truly disgusting, Barbarian is a movie that tries to separate itself from the metaphorror crowd with an absurdist touch but still finds time for ham-fisted bullshit. The first act is all you see in its trailer, and it’s the most interesting part of the movie. A young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives in Detroit for a job interview only to find that her Airbnb, in a derelict suburban neighborhood that is scary because it looks like only poor people live there, is double-booked by Bill Skarsgård, of Pennywise fame, who plays a guy hilariously named Keith. Keith is nice enough to invite Tess to stay the night while they sort things out, sweet enough to understand her misgivings about sharing a house with a strange guy, aware enough to only share drinks she’s seen him pour, and hot enough to get her guard down for a warm, flirty night where both parties realize they are improbably linked because she’s trying to work on a documentary about a musical group that he happens to be part of.
The perils of a double-booked Airbnb is a hot premise lately. Netflix just released a movie called Love in the Villa about a girl in Italy who shares a place with a hot British guy, Katie Holmes wrote, produced and starred in a Covid movie called Alone, Together with a similar plotline, and Winona Ryder did the same with a movie called Gone in the Night. The narrative appeal is obvious: it neatly forces strangers into an unavoidable situation together. But it’s telling that most of the titles in question explore romantic possibilities over frightening ones. Barbarian leans hard on the idea that Tess is a smart, capable, and cautious individual, someone who isn’t easily persuaded by flattery or paeans to essential good guy-ness. It takes a charming guy like Keith to change things. Which is why the first act is effective as the set-up to a two-hander rom-com and not a horror movie where there’s something scary in the basement.
I’ll condense the rest of the movie. Tess finds a scary basement, which hides an even scarier subterranean network of tunnels. Inside, a very tall, very strong, very naked woman roams in the dark, coming out of the house at night to hunt for victims. Keith, after foolishly ignoring Tess’s pleas not to go down there, gets his head bashed in by the scary naked woman. Meanwhile, Tess becomes the woman’s prisoner, a surrogate baby of sorts, since this woman, a product of incest via a serial killer who used to own the house, has a exaggeratedly distorted maternal complex. This, as it turns out, is the main twist of the movie and what the trailer baits you with by its omission. Reading it out like this is more engaging than watching it happen.
The first act is effective as the set-up to a two-hander rom-com and not a horror movie where there’s something scary in the basement.
A subplot featuring Justin Long’s Hollywood director character AJ truncates the big reveal, an intentionally jarring cut away from the main action to sunny California, where AJ is abruptly cancelled due to sexual assault allegations by an actress. He goes to Detroit, since it turns out he owns the house, but doesn’t know what lies beneath. He plans to liquidate his real estate in order to pay for upcoming legal fees related to the allegations. Long is Barbarian’s only ace, a scream king in his own right and the most reliable actor to play a capital-g Guy in basically anything. He imbues AJ with a beguiling mixture of haughtiness, entitlement, obliviousness, sincerity, and pity, a slightly broad, but at least comedically effective send-up of the canceled media man in a bind. Long also earns the film’s biggest laugh when, after discovering the secret door to the basement, he immediately ignores any of the weird torture stuff and starts measuring its square footage to add to the resale value of the house.
From here, AJ and Tess must work together to escape, all the while fielding disinterested cops, AJ’s own narcissism, and Tess’s script-mandated declining savviness (Tess starts out as a clever, nervy lead before turning into a physically wounded chess piece who makes increasingly poor decisions).
Barbarian’s tonal shifts, from drab seriousness to something akin to slapstick comedy, would appeal more if it was executed with skill. Horror and comedy have always fit well together, two sides of the same exaggerated, irreverent coin with the latitude to push the elements of suspended disbelief to their laughter-inducing, hair-raising breaking points. Think of the zany but terrifying Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street, Pinhead from Hellraiser, or, more recently, Pearl from Ti West’s slasher homage X. Writer-director Zach Cregger, a co-founder of The Whitest Kids U’ Know comedy group, endeavors to follow in these footsteps, subverting the audience’s expectations by constantly shifting gears and communicating that he knows that we know we’re watching a horror movie. There’s a meta quality to the way AJ and Tess react to their circumstances, an almost fourth-wall breaking candor that should invite the audience in, but merely comes off as condescending. As for the way this is all presented, the look of Barbarian shifts just as clumsily in Cregger’s flailing attempt for a visually striking aesthetic. His camera pushes in quickly, whips around in the dark, holds still for compositionally pleasing shots that showcase his cinematographic sophistication, and bounces wildly when the protagonists get chased around. The digitally pristine frames become noisy with artificial grain underground, darkness punctured by cellphone flashlights and hazy shapes in the distance. It is disorienting in the most irritating way.
Critics have commented positively on Barbarian’s digressive nature, how it will break away from a tense moment and turn towards a scene that’s either seemingly unrelated or tonally opposite of what just happened. One of the main examples, hidden beneath the spoiler plate, is when the audience gets the backstory for the scary woman, the man who raped her and dozens of other women, and the once-idyllic lily white neighborhood they lived in before it was ruined by non-white tenants. These detours should punctuate the suspense of each scene or give a further sense of who these people are and why they act as they do, but really it only emphasizes the fact that Cregger feels the need to divert his attention just as things get interesting. Compare this with Jordan Peele’s Nope, another knotted, digressive 2022 horror film with comedic elements that nonetheless utilizes its time jumps and non-linear structure to deepen our understanding of the characters rather than provide the audience with tidy answers.
As for the central kernel of Barbarian, it’s less that patriarchy is the real enemy (though I’m sure Cregger wouldn’t discourage such a take) than that AJ is a selfish asshole whose guilt is inseparable from his narcissism. When Tess escapes (thanks to a black homeless man who’s portrayed as a scary person before showing his heart of gold a la The Purge), she goes back for AJ, who accidentally shoots her. He laments his selfishness, his capacity for harm, his complicity, a monologue delivered as much to the actress he assaulted as to Tess. It’s all so much po-faced contrition, played straight by Long but tonally uncertain by Cregger.
Every trope is deployed, from condescending jump scares to overlong fake-outs. As a final girl, Tess is flat and inert, especially at the end of the film when the most she’s able to do is limp and wince. As a stand-in for the ur-Hollywood sleazebag, AJ is both too specific and too broad a character to signify anything or anyone meaningfully, which would be fine if the writing stood up to Justin Long’s acting skill. As satire, Cregger can’t cop to some of the most essential entries in Barbarian’s particular subgenre, movies like The People Under the Stairs or Parasite. He even sucks out the trashy, goopy fun of his film’s practical effects and gross makeup by trying to imbue them with random, hard-hitting meaningless at the beginning and cathartic, reparative retribution at the end. In the middle are so many plot points and garbled social observations.
In the final scene, Tess covertly steals AJ’s gun. The old woman, mother to all her victims, a pitiful, abused, misunderstood abomination, has just ripped AJ’s head in half and tries in vain to ineffectually treat Tess’s wounds. Tess shoots the old woman in the head. The screen cuts to black, “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes starts playing over the credits, and the guy next to me goes, “Wait, that’s it?” That’s it.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.