Horror as a genre is constantly evolving, perhaps more so than others. Or at the very least, the way it keeps reshaping itself remains quite interesting in that it is both an entity that tirelessly seeks to reinvent itself and one that seeks to retain a firm connection to its roots. Moreover, horror attracts a specific pedigree of filmmakers, many of whom are driven predominantly by a desire to have fun making movie magic happen.
What’s quite intriguing is that it would seem in the recent decade or so, horror films have stepped up their game and have become more intellectually engaging than ever before. Granted, I would still argue that a lot of the most historically successful and revered horror films have carried intrinsic thematic conversations underneath their genre appeal, but it is equally true to notice that the concept of “elevated horror” has gained in prominence in recent years. Between movies like The Babadook, Get Out, Hereditary, and more recently Candyman, Antlers, The Night House and countless more, genre movies have inadvertently conditioned modern audiences to expect an intellectually charged experience laden with social commentary when venturing to see a movie about ghosts, zombies, or demonic possessions. Visceral enjoyment has been somewhat side-lined and perhaps altogether relegated to the background, while the viewer was asked to ponder heady themes and intellectual concepts hidden beneath the epidermis of familiar genre tropes.
Therefore, it is a welcome sight to witness a movie steeped in genre identity that also wants to entertain and exhilarate its audience without necessarily burdening them with a thematic conversation on socio-political issues, even though they are happy to facilitate such conversations on some level with those prepared to have them. Barbarian is one such film that – perhaps unwittingly – ticks all those boxes to a degree: it’s nostalgically attached to a thing or two, it communicates the filmmakers’ passion for the craft, it can instigate a conversation going further than discussing the film itself, and – most of all – it is simply fun to watch.
So, what is Barbarian all about? Zach Cregger (the director in his debut and writer) drops the viewer immediately into a seemingly familiar set of circumstances where a young woman Tess (Georgina Campbell) pulls up to an Airbnb in the middle of nowhere in Detroit and finds out the house was double-booked and is already occupied by someone (Bill Skarsgård). Although a multitude of red flags are immediately raised, Tess proceeds to share the house with a strange man named Keith and thus walks into a scenario every genre aficionado is perfectly aware of; after all, you must open some doors to make a horror movie. One thing leads to another and the unlikely pair of protagonists discover that the house has a secret basement, a creepily barren holding cell with a stained bed, a bucket and a video camera, as well as a secret door leading to a network of pitch-black tunnels.
But that’s merely the beginning. As Tess and Keith face off against whatever it is that dwells beneath the house they had the misfortune to rent, the filmmaker’s gaze reverts elsewhere to introduce AJ (Justin Long), a Hollywood producer whom we meet as his career goes down the toilet in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct, who also turns out to be the owner of that fateful house. And because coincidences never travel alone, AJ finds himself on the way to Detroit to sell the house and fund his legal expenses, where he finds the same mysterious basement, a maze of underground tunnels and… Tess, who tells him there is someone else lurking in the darkness.
Now, a discussion about Barbarian can easily bifurcate at this point, as one can be lured to have a conversation about the ‘elevated’ side of this movie; which is undeniably there. It’s possible (and likely encouraged) to see this snappy exercise in classically generated suspense, dread and scares as a front for a discussion about gentrification, falling for harmful stereotypes, a minefield of social cues and perceived threats constituting the bulk of female interaction with the world at large, the privileged existence and entitlement of successful men, and more. But equally, the film does not necessarily feel as though it wanted us to have this conversation at the expense of having a good time watching the story unfold. In contrast to something like Candyman which arguably overlaps partially with Barbarian in terms of its thematic interests, Zach Cregger’s story isn’t married to the idea of advancing a political message as its primary mission. At no point during the movie did I stop to ponder in any particular depth the thematic gravitas of the male-female dynamic, the ramifications of the #metoo movement or the socio-political colonization of impoverished neighbourhoods. This came later, as I was making my way back home from the cinema.
As the movie was going, all I was invested in was how Tess is going to find her way out of her predicament, how AJ’s character is going to factor into the way the story unfolds, who or what this terrifying creature dwelling in the tunnels is and how would it eventually be defeated. In a way, Barbarian became a perfect genre trap that succeeds as a story first. It’s not novel or ground-breaking, by the way. Anyone even remotely familiar with the genre would immediately recognize the nods and familiar tips of the hat the movie was making to found footage horrors, survival thrillers, and much more. In fact, it’s a part of the fun to be able to pinpoint these elements of connective tissue and position the movie within the wider landscape of its own pop-cultural self-awareness.
However, Barbarian doesn’t want to fetishize its own connection to the genre at large akin to X or Malignant, both of which managed their nostalgic reveries with panache, and instead opts to hang the success of the movie on the on-screen charisma of its protagonist and hands the titanic job of making sure the movie is a success to Georgina Campbell, who’s no slouch either. Her turn as Tess, a self-assured and switched-on torchbearer for what used to be referred to as a scream queen borders on phenomenal. She is a magnetizing presence that carries the entire movie on her shoulders as though she had done it a million times before. It only goes to show that when the story is tight (even if it is a de facto modular conglomeration of genre Lego blocks) and the director is lucid enough, the fate of the film will be decided when casting the lead roles.
It’s absolutely necessary for Tess to be a combination of likability, vulnerability and innate prowess, just as it is imperative for Keith to look a little bit ambiguous, or for AJ to give off a strong goof vibe to hide his sinister capabilities. With this trio in front of the camera and a director who knows how to play to their strengths behind it, Barbarian is an out-and-out success in that it prioritizes visceral entertainment without necessarily sacrificing the idea of allowing the viewers to have a conversation on the way home. It’s equally a fun Halloween fixture and a debate starter, which is a delicate balancing act so many horror movies fail to strike these days.