Talk about coming right the fuck out of nowhere. Barbarian is the rare low-budget horror film that had absolutely nothing to do with Blumhouse or A24. What’s more, it’s a 20th Century picture that got a theatrical release (albeit in September garbage time during one of the lowest-grossing weekends of the year so far) instead of getting dumped onto Hulu. Most perplexing of all, it comes to us from writer/director Zach Cregger, late of goddamn “The Whitest Kids You Know”!
So what the hell have we got here? Well, I’m afraid there’s only so much I can tell you without some crucial spoilers, but I’ll do the best I can.
We lay our scene in Detroit, so of course the film takes place in a neighborhood that’s completely fallen to shit. There’s only one pristine house on the entire street, owned by Justin Long’s character so he can rent it out. (And I’m sorry, but that’s all I can really say about Long’s character at this time.)
The plot begins with the arrival of Tess (a starmaking turn from Georgina Campbell) who rented out the house while she was in town for a job interview. Trouble is, she arrived to find that Keith (Bill Skarsgaard, also an exec producer) had already set himself up in the same house. Yes, it seems that the house was accidentally double-booked, the landlord is of course unavailable, and some flimsy contrivance means that every other hotel in Detroit is booked full. So now Tess and Keith have to find some way of sharing the house together.
Remember when I said this was the only presentable house in a neighborhood of graffitied-up wrecks? Yeah, it should come as no surprise that this house has some fucked-up secrets and things start to unravel pretty much immediately.
The movie earns a lot of points right off the bat because the main characters act as if they’ve seen a horror movie. That’s not to say the characters don’t make any stupid decisions, but that’s typically after all other options have been exhausted and/or some totally understandable lapse in caution. This is especially true of Tess, who immediately recognizes that this whole arrangement is suspicious and takes common-sense precautions accordingly.
Indeed, Tess is demonstrably the most competent and sympathetic of our main characters. Not coincidentally, she’s the only black woman of the cast, opposite a couple of mediocre white guys. The film makes a big deal out of this in many implicit and explicit ways. Hell, Tess herself points out in one scene how the plot would’ve played out in a very different way if she was male. But overall, the film is a great deal smarter and more subtle in making thematic statements by way of how the other characters interact with her.
For that matter, the filmmakers show impeccable skill at knowing exactly how to subvert expectations in a way that makes for first-rate horror. The camerawork, editing, and score all do so much to keep the audience on edge, anxiously waiting for the next horrible thing to finally reveal itself. That does tend to manifest by way of cheap jump scares, yes, but there are so many times when it doesn’t result in anything at all.
The film is loaded to the brim with false leads and red herrings, leading the audience to believe that a jump scare is coming when none ever does. But it still works, because we never know in the moment which leads are false and which ones are leading up to a jump scare. Even better, the payoffs are almost beside the point when the setups are this immaculate. The atmosphere in this film is all-encompassing, with such disturbing clues and visual foreshadowing that I was hooked on every moment to see what the big reveal would be. It’s a compelling way to draw the audience in, no doubt about that.
In a recent blog entry, I talked about the trick of switching protagonists in mid-stream and how it can totally wreck the plot if it isn’t done properly. This is a fantastic and innovative example of how it can be done properly, in a way that shocks the audience and opens up the story without completely breaking the plot.
The only unfortunate trade-off is that it results in a movie with a clearly defined midpoint, such that the first and second halves almost feel like totally different movies. Even so, it helps that the movie has strong thematic threads to tie it all together, most especially with regards to sexism and violence against women. In the first half, it’s more about microaggressions and subtle patriarchal gestures and the myriad little precautions women have to integrate into their everyday lives because they never know which charming stranger will turn out to be a harmful psychopath.
With the halftime turning point, the film shifts into a higher gear and focuses on outright assault. Not necessarily in the way that you’d think, but there’s definitely some candid talk about at least one rape. This is also where we get into the broader conversation about how good people do bad things, with the obligation (though perhaps not the ability) of trying to fix the damage done.
I want to be careful not to overhype Barbarian. While the film employs a deft touch to make a lot of socially relevant statements, I must confess that I’ve seen many other recent films — even horror films! — do more with similar topics. What’s more, while the film is certainly clever, it’s nowhere near innovative enough to be the next big thing that all the other horror films will want to imitate. And while I appreciate the film’s compelling environment, the plot is visibly contrived in places and I expect quite a few horror fans will come away disappointed with the relative paucity of gore and/or actual scares.
Even so, this is undeniably a well-crafted horror flick. It’s always a relief to see an intelligent horror movie, and this one’s presented with nuance and subtlety not typically seen within the genre. Aside from a couple of in-your-face shocks — most especially during the climax — it’s a film that’s satisfied with being creepy and disturbing rather than over-the-top. I’ll put it this way: If the number one goal of any horror movie is to make the audience feel unsafe, then mission accomplished.
I’m hesitant to call this one a masterpiece, but it’s undeniably a good movie. And that’s more than enough, especially in these lean September weeks. Definitely check it out.