For a certain kind of movie, the greatest tribute you can pay is not being able to sit through to the end. At least, that’s what I like to think the two people who sprinted out of my screening of Barbarian on Friday night were trying to express by their abrupt exit. I’d like to tell you exactly what it was in this tense and twisted movie that might have prompted them to head for the doors, but I was a too busy suppressing the fight-or-flight instinct myself.
Barbarian topped the box office when it opened in early September, which isn’t unusual for horror movies, whose fans tend to turn out in droves and then vanish almost as quickly. But it’s since defied conventional wisdom by holding onto its audience. Last weekend, it actually added 550 screens. And having seen it with a crowd, albeit one that was two people smaller by the time the credits rolled, it’s easy to see why.
Written and directed by Zach Cregger, Barbarian is a prime example of what you might call un-elevated horror. Where some directors and studios have used the “elevated horror” label to market scary movies like Get Out and The Witch to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be caught dead in one, Cregger’s movie revels in the genre’s stock elements: a spooky house on a deserted street, doors that open and close of their own accord, a woman standing at the top of a rough-hewn staircase that descends into inky darkness, shakily asking, “Hello?”
Barbarian doesn’t feel the need to signal that it’s better than genre clichés by constantly winking at them, nor does it deploy them with the punishing determination of David Gordon Green’s Halloween movies. But Cregger has thought about why they work, and he keeps paying them off in unexpected ways. When Tess (Georgina Campbell) turns up at a short-term rental in a particularly bombed-out section of Detroit only to find it’s already occupied by a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård), alarm bells immediately start ringing, and his jittery attempts to set her at ease only make matters worse. She surreptitiously snaps a picture of his driver’s license, and you keep waiting for the moment when she’ll plug his name or likeness into a search engine and find out that he’s an escaped serial killer. But instead she just gazes at it fondly, zooming in on her iPhone to get a better look at his face, and though when she returns to the rental home in daylight, she realizes the neighborhood is much worse than she thought—theirs appears to be the only house within miles that isn’t crumbling entirely to ruin—she sticks around anyway. The movie justifies this vaguely, with a tossed-off line about how every room in town is booked because of some convention or other, but of course the real reason Tess stays is that the movie requires it, and because we want her to.
Barbarian’s script thinks through its problems as much as it needs to, and no more: It knows that horror and logic are enemies at heart, and the trick is to make us desire the knowledge of what’s behind that door more than we care why it’s opened. Its best trick is that there’s more than one door. (Spoilers for Barbarian follow.) When Tess gets stuck in the house’s basement—the door locks from the outside because whatever, it just does—she finds a hidden passageway that leads to a windowless room containing a filthy mattress and a video camera, along with a bloody handprint smeared on the wall. Not long after, she realizes there’s a hidden door behind that hidden door, that one leading to a rough-hewn staircase leading down into the earth. Eventually, we realize there’s another door beyond that one, too. But the movie’s real trap doors aren’t physical but structural. Tess starts descending those stairs about 40 minutes into the movie, and the farther down she goes, the more unbelievable it seems that there’s nearly an hour to go. But just as an unholy figure rushes out of the darkness at her, the movie cuts away, and suddenly we’re in another time and place, watching a callow young TV star, AJ (Justin Long) drive his convertible down the California coast.
Naturally, AJ’s story winds its way back to Tess’s. That neatly kept house in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood turns out to belong to him, an ill-advised real estate investment that becomes his only asset after his career abruptly collapses. AJ too makes his way down to the basement, albeit with the brash cocksureness of a man too dim to conceive of anything he can’t handle, and soon both of them are trapped in a cage and the story seems to be at another dead end. But Cregger cuts away yet again, this time searing our eyeballs—by now well-adjusted to dimly lit interiors and Stygian pits—with the incandescent green of heavily fertilized lawns and brightly painted houses. Because there are no cues to orient us, it takes a while to determine where we are, until we realize the question isn’t where, but when. We’re back on the same street some 40 years earlier, before white flight gutted the neighborhood and left it a shell of itself. (The fact that both versions of the street were constructed from scratch in Bulgaria adds to the feeling of synthetic displacement.) Reagan’s economy is sending the markets into a downturn, and his neighbor apologetically tells the gruff, affectless Frank (Richard Brake) that he’s about to put his house on the market. But Frank vows that he isn’t going anywhere, and having seen the future, we know how true that is. Frank goes shopping for “baby stuff,” and we watch him stalk a woman to her house, slipping into a utility worker’s coveralls and surreptitiously opening the lock on her bathroom window before making his way out. If you’re up on your Netflix serial killer series, you know what happens next.
Or maybe you don’t. Because Frank isn’t just murdering women, or imprisoning them and forcing them to bear his children. He’s doing that and forcing those children to have children with each other, and then forcing those children to etc. We don’t see any evidence of this, fortunately, beyond a stack of videocassettes with labels like “puker” and “gas station redhead,” but the product of these concentric circles of incestuous rape is what’s stalking the house’s subterranean tunnels, a mutated woman obsessed with making visitors her “babies” and yet strong enough to rip a man in two. (That is not a figure of speech.) Generations of retreat from the outside world has produced something truly monstrous—exactly how many generations fit into 40 years is not an equation you’re meant to solve—but the outside world isn’t much better. This corner of Detroit has been left to rot, and the authorities have their hands full making sure the rest of the city doesn’t go the same way. Horror movies love finding ways to disable their protagonists’ cellphones, but Barbarian doesn’t have to, because when Tess calls the cops, they don’t come, and when they eventually do come, they don’t help.
Before Barbarian, Cregger was best known as a member of the sketch comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U’ Know. As the career of Jordan Peele has demonstrated, there’s a lot of crossover between comedy and horror, the genres most dependent on technique and timing: Either a gag or a scare can be ruined if it’s off by a fraction of a second. But even more than Peele, Cregger does both at once. Barbarian isn’t horror-comedy, but it makes you laugh at its audaciousness, as well as, sometimes, to keep yourself from screaming. (There’s also a sequence involving Long’s character and a tape measure that’s the funniest thing I’ve seen all year.) Especially as it nears its climax, the movie leans into its own absurdity, building to a final act that is, quite deliberately, more silly than it is scary.
It’s also (and I’ve saved this for last so as not to frighten anyone off) quite smart. Barbarian doesn’t have an overriding thesis or big statement to make, because its intelligence is intuitive rather than programmatic. You can make what you like of the fact that Tess, who is Black, has come to Detroit to interview for a job with a white documentary filmmaker whose latest movie is about jazz; that the only other significant Black character in the movie is a homeless man who drags her out of the basement and warns her not to go back to that “bad place”; that AJ is a gentrifier as well as an accused rapist. The subtext—about racism and urban renewal, toxic masculinity, Reagan-era paranoia and its ramifications in the present day—stays subtext, there to be mined by those who don’t mind making ever-so-slight fools of themselves. (The copy of Jane Eyre conspicuously placed in Tess’ luggage can stay just where it is, thanks.) Fortunately, you don’t have to dig under its surface to think Barbarian’s a blast.