Expect the Unexpected: 'Barbarian' is the Funniest Horror Movie in Years
At about 45 minutes in, it becomes clear that Barbarian is not your cut-and-dried horror film, but a jaw dropping tour de force of the unexpected. The plot feels familiar in the beginning: when Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Detroit airbnb rental on a rainy night, she discovers that the house is already occupied. Keith, played by Bill Skarsgård, while unassuming, is an immediate red flag because of the actor’s time as the villainous Pennywise in 2017’s It. He insists that she spend the night, pointing out that there isn’t anywhere else for her to go—the neighborhood is sketchy and long abandoned—and readily fetches her luggage, giving up his bed to make it all the easier for her to stay.
Any attentive horror fan, or fans of any genre, should sense the impending doom as various circumstances and Keith’s persuasion force Tess to spend the night at the house. After being awoken by strange noises in the night, Tess discovers a secret door in the basement; one leading to dark passageways, hidden rooms, and, surely, unimaginable horrors. This premise feels predictable and washed-out, ripe for horror cliches and easy jumpscares, but writer and director Zach Cregger is acutely aware of this. Barbarian’s strength is in Cregger’s ability to twist a simple and familiar premise into something that is darker, more sinister, and all the more enjoyable.
The initial setup would be scary enough on its own. Cregger, who got his start in the sketch comedy group The Whitest Kids U’Know, has still seemed to master the art of horror suspense. Each shot is crafted to leave room for some unseen threat lurking in the darkness. Much of the credit must be given to cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, who illuminates the basement tunnels in a manner that highlights their expansiveness, while simultaneously creating a claustrophobic environment. Cregger’s use of suspense could have held its own, but when he chooses to undercut that tension and obliterate the audience’s expectations, the movie shines.
(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
Once Tess follows Keith into the tunnels, she discovers that something is down there in a violent and nerve-racking game of hide and seek. But in an instant—just as Tess confronts the terror buried in the basement—the film abruptly jumps to a sunny California coast, bewilderment
replaces fear, and we meet AJ (Justin Long), an arrogant and abrasive producer who is left jobless after accusations of sexual assault. In an attempt to save himself from financial ruin, he finds himself at his rental property in Detroit. The swift change in narrative is jarring, but entirely Credit: 20th Century Fox
effective. Primed by the shift in tone, one that prompted a nearly uncontrollable bout of bemused laughter in the theater, the audience’s dread that followed Tess is replaced with pure curiosity as to what will happen to AJ. In a move rarely found in most horror movies, Cregger invites the audience to approach the conflict below the surface with a sense of bewilderment rather than pure terror.
Barbarian is by no means a horror-comedy, but, just as Jordan Peele has proved with his time in the director’s chair, the similarities between the genres are impossible to ignore. Cregger’s mastery of build-up and timing provides not only genuine scares, but a dark undercurrent of twisted humor. Throughout the movie, I, along with most of the audience, found myself laughing at the sheer audacity of Cregger’s script despite myself. One scene, in which AJ attempts to measure the square footage of the tunnels beneath his property, might be the funniest thing I have witnessed in theaters this year. And that’s not to say that Cregger’s entirely intentional laugh-out-loud humor overpowers the movie. Instead, it strikes the perfect balance, adding to the anticipatory unease by constantly priming the audience for the unexpected.
At its core, Barbarian is a movie that wants to challenge its audience, to throw the unexpected on screen, and to leave viewers feeling emotionally confused (the most accurate description of how I felt leaving the theater). Though it may not be for everyone, Barbarian is genuinely frightening and incredibly funny, all while maintaining an atmosphere of intense tragedy. In the end, the greatest horror seems to be the inescapable systems of abuse created and sustained by (primarily white) men. Whether it be Keith’s ignorant disregard of Tess’ warnings against the basement or AJ’s obvious gentrification of a poor Detroit neighborhood, Cregger’s script is not afraid to comment on very real horrors—and it’s all the better for it.
Alex Johnson is a sophomore in the College studying Government.