BARBARIAN. Brilliant horror movie
You’re familiar with the type of horror movies that are actually guides – what to do, or rather: what not to do in certain situations? Slashers usually hint that escaping to the floor of a house usually ends in multiple stab wounds, and also teach that a house in a remote area is not the best location for a weekend getaway. Zach Cregger’s Barbarian teaches us that an Airbnb in a deserted neighborhood of a once-mighty city can also harbor evil.
Detroit, once the capital of the American automobile industry, has earned the nickname of “horror location” in recent years. The housing crisis that has been going on for years, a result of the global economic collapse of the first decade of the 21st century, has reduced the city’s population by 25% and depopulated some neighborhoods. It is in one of them, Brightmoor, that the main character of Barbarian, Tess (Georgina Campbell), is staying. In the middle of a nighttime downpour, she pulls up in front of a perfectly decent-looking bungalow, looks up on her phone the code needed to open the key box, and then… it turns out that the box is empty. When Tess tries to clarify the matter on the phone, she notices that someone is already inside her rented house. So she knocks on the door, which is opened by Keith (Bill Skarsgård), a thirty-year-old guy completely surprised by the situation, but rather reasonable-looking. Despite her initial objections, Tess decides to go along with the man’s offer to “share” the reservation and explain the situation the following day. Sound suspicious? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Zach Cregger, writer and director of Barbarian, knows how to play with horror tropes. He leads the viewer by the nose, and even when it seems that in a moment we will know the answer to the question “what could have gone wrong,” Cregger shows us that we don’t really know anything. Barbarian is divided into two chapters, and when we are under the impression that the events of the first chapter were definitive, the director shows us how wrong we were. There is also a significant loosening of conventions between chapters – we move from a rather classic horror narrative, in which danger lurks at almost every turn, to a more comedic one, and this is mainly due to the creation of Justin Long, playing the celebrity-owner of the property rented by Tess and Keith. AJ is an exceptionally hopeless type who loses his position and money in no time as a result of sexually assaulting a female set mate. He comes to Detroit to liquidate the rental property, but it may not be as easy as it seems….
Barbarian, especially in the latter part, becomes a film that is not entirely serious, e.g. when the reaction to finding a secret passage in the basement is a quick Google check to see if underground passageways increase the value of the property. Evil, however, still lurks within the walls of a house standing in a dilapidated neighborhood – and it’s an evil not unlike what you’d usually find in films that maintain the “home invasion” convention. As he builds the tension of his horror film, Cregger also weaves a tale of Brighmoor – a once beautiful small-town neighborhood that in the 1980s was full of beautiful highway cruisers, children riding tricycles and evenly trimmed lawns. However, when we hear a conversation between neighbors in one of the flashbacks, a statement is made in it: “the neighborhood is going to the dogs.” So even then there were signs that both Brightmoor and Detroit as a whole were going through a crisis – but no one seemed to expect them to become model locations for numerous horror movies.
Barbarian fits beautifully into the trend of socially engaged horror films, propelled in recent years by Jordan Peele’s films, among others. Zach Cregger may not use such a veiled form, but he clearly suggests that the neglect of the neighborhood – primarily on the part of the authorities, as is evident in the scene of Tess’ contact with the police – has allowed evil and depravity to flourish freely. The slow depopulation of Brightmoor has allowed villains to commit more crimes with impunity, and only pain and harm remain among the ruins of a once charming neighborhood.
Where there is no control, darkness is born.