On top of the classic spooky films, Halloween is the perfect season to catch up on this year’s horror innovators; Jordan Peele, Ti West and now, with the release of his sleeper horror hit “Barbarian,” Zach Cregger. “Barbarian,” which became available on HBO Max on Oct. 25, is a film that knows what its audience is thinking and plays with these expectations to make a truly unpredictable, if somewhat unstable, ride.
The film starts with aspiring documentary filmmaker Tess (Georgina Campbell) checking into an AirBNB double booked with a mysterious stranger (Bill Skarsgård). The film reinvents itself (even within genre) from scene to scene; it is best seen with as few expectations as possible.
These structural shifts are the scariest part of “Barbarian.” If you’re looking for a clean “save-the-cat” structure, you’re in the wrong place. The film isn’t challenging, but its structure is atypical and fresh. This is a horror film that resists subordination; trying to peg it within a subgenre will leave the reader with more questions than answers, and that’s what makes it so refreshing.
Fans of cult comedy might recognize director Cregger (who briefly appears in the film’s second half) from sketch group "The Whitest Kids U'Know." Though “Barbarian” is terrifying at times, Cregger’s script shines in its humor, particularly in the scenes introducing landlord AJ Gilbride (Justin Long).
This humor becomes a double-edged sword, though — in the same way “Barbarian” doesn’t really fall into a subgenre, it also doesn’t seem content with itself as a horror movie or horror-comedy. At times, it feels like Cregger is attempting to do both horror and comedy at once rather than building them both together. Still, Cregger is a clear genre savant.
Though “Barbarian” is refreshing, it still suffers from its A24-tinted surface level messaging — rather than utilizing subtext, the movie’s discussions of gender and sexual violence are practically beaten over your head, much like Alex Garland’s “Men.” Horror works best when there’s something substantive behind the scares, but part of genre filmmaking is trusting your audience to understand your thematic implications without having your characters explicitly spell them out.
This being said, “Barbarian” still felt like it added unique angles to the conversation about sexual violence, particularly hollywood culpability and whether those guilty of misconduct ever truly change. It’s heavy-handed, but it’s interesting.
This film, though strong in Cregger’s direction and script, is strongest in its brilliant atmosphere, cultivated by director of photography Zach Kuperstein, sound designer Matt Davies, editor Joe Murphy and production designer Rossitsa Bakeva. What would roughly equate to the first act of any other horror film stands on its own in “Barbarian,” tense and horrifying in its own rite.
Of particular note here is Kuperstein, whose cinematography is creative and engaging in a way rarely seen in the mid-budget horror field. Combined with Cregger, this film has a team that knows where to put the camera to maximize discomfort and fear in viewers. Even a shot of a running dryer terrified me — no context, no dialogue, just the power of a well-composed image and well-designed sound to create a tense atmosphere.
Though the framing and sound design compliment this atmosphere, Skarsgård’s contributions as AirBNB guest Keith shouldn’t be discounted. Brought onto the film by producer Roy Lee, who had worked with him on the “IT” franchise, Skarsgård’s inherent shiftiness puts the audience on edge from his first appearance. Though Campbell and Long are commendable, Skarsgård steals the first 50 minutes.
Cregger’s first film, the abysmal “Miss March,” showed zero promise, but with this feature, we’re witnessing the emergence of who could be a truly great genre innovator. “Barbarian” has its flaws, but more than anything, it showcases a unique and original voice, one that I look forward to hearing from again.
Spenser Willden is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @spenserwillden
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