Living in a post-Get Out, Scream, Cabin In The Woods, and other ‘meta horrors’ of the last 10–15 years, audiences are demanding more innovative horror movies and cleverer and more competent characters within those movies. This is all fine and well, but it does become a problem for a few reasons, the first and foremost being that inevitably, one or more of those characters will make a mistake (they’re human, assumably). However small a mistake they make will be amplified as we’ve established early on that our protagonist isn’t like those “other incompetent horror movie leads.” If they’re so smart, why would they do x, y, or z?
The short answer, however unsatisfying, is that it is a movie, and you have to have conflict, however frustrating and inane said conflict may be.
Barbarian, the directorial debut of Whitest Kids You Know alum Zach Cregger, stars Georgina Campbell, who may be best known from the Black Mirror episode Hang The DJ. It co-stars Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgård, along with Jeepers Creepers and Tusk lead Justin Long. Horror veterans abound in this film.
We meet Georgina’s Tess as she’s attempting to get into the Airbnb she reserved for the night, finding Bill’s Keith already residing inside. Their attempts at idle chatter and get-to-know-you’s are what’s at the heart of this film for me. Is Keith there by accident? Does he have any ill-intent? How would we know? Without spoiling too much, the evening’s tension is eventually broken without much fanfare.
And that’s where the film begins to lose me. As stated earlier, the idea of a movie being self-aware of its genre trappings is nothing new. But what this movie does explore, breaking somewhat new ground, is how a person (in this context, a man) may act in a post #metoo world. Getting out of the shower, Tess finds Keith at the table with an unopened bottle of wine. He explains, somewhat forced and awkwardly, that he wanted to wait to open the bottle in front of her, lest she might think he’s up to some nefarious shenanigans.
If the film had continued to explore this area of greyness, building up Keith as someone to trust but then upending that groundwork somehow, I would have been higher on this film than I am. But, instead, what Barbarian does become, without getting too heavily into specifics, is a creature feature. God knows I love a good creature feature, but what the movie seemed interested in being, and what it was trying to say, was something more thematically dense than what we traditionally get from something like Jeepers Creepers.
With that said, while what Barbarian does best is building organic tension in the first half, when it does transition into the creature spectacle it is in the last half, Creggar and his SFX crew, led by Alexandrina Dermendzhiyska, do a fantastic job of portraying a terrifying, tactile, and menacing ‘creature.’ It’s just unfortunate that the two genres at play here, a claustrophobic paranoia thriller and a creature feature, don’t coalesce into a more cohesive feature film debut.