Barbarian is this year’s unexpected horror surprise. Variety calls it “a ratched new horror classic,” while the Hollywood Reporter labels it a “gleefully gonzo horror flick.” If you watch the trailer, you’d expect a haunted house story, or maybe a thriller with a male maniac. However, the film works so well because of its twists and turns, its unexpected surprises.
Yet, there’s a little more to the film than gore and surprising plot directions. It’s careful never to beat anyone over the head with social commentary, but the depictions of urban decay and what our neighbors in the ‘burbs may be hiding are impossible to ignore. Further, in his feature debut, Zach Cregger takes a cue from Psycho in terms of narrative structure and realigning character focus and plot. The film warrants some unpacking, especially when considering why exactly it’s so effective and warrants the buzz it’s been receiving.
Fair warning: if you didn’t see the film yet, save this article for later. It’s best to go into this one totally cold.
Barbarian and Psycho’s Clear Influence
Though Cregger’s background is in comedy (he’s one of the founding members of the NYC-based comedy troupe The White Kids U’ Know), it’s clear that Hitchcock influenced him. Barbarian borrows a lot from Psycho. The film opens as Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb in Detroit’s blighted Brightmoor neighborhood. It’s late, and it’s raining. Like Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who pulls into the Bates Motel during a downpour, Tess is out of her element. When she steps on the front porch, she realizes someone’s already in the house, Keith, played by Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgard.
Within the first five minutes, you can’t help but wonder if Tess will suffer poor Marian Crane’s fate. Is Keith a Norman Bates-type character? We’re led to believe so. It’s odd that he occupies the house when Tess shows him an email stating that she rented the property because she has an interview the next day. We also assume Keith will be a villain because, well, that’s simply what Skarsgard plays in horror movies. And the thing is, the director knows this. He toys with our expectations, especially once Keith insists Tess stay the night. What could possibly go wrong?
However, like Hitchcock, Cregger disrupts the narrative about halfway through. It turns out that Keith actually isn’t a bad guy or the villain. Despite what we initially think, he’s no Norman Bates. He’s also killed off once he and Tess discover a monstrous woman in the basement. His death is important for a few reasons. Like Janet Leigh in Psycho, Skarsgard is undoubtedly the biggest star in this film, especially to horror fans. He features prominently in the trailer. Killing him off is shocking, but it also resets the narrative, just like Psycho post-shower scene, where the attention shifts from Marion to Norman.
There’s an abrupt narrative turn that occurs once Keith dies and the woman traps Tess. Suddenly, we’re introduced to AJ (Justin Long), an actor caught up in a #MeToo scandal. He leaves Cali and returns to Detroit to stay at one of his rental properties, the very one housing a sinister past.
Barbarian and Urban Blight
The representation of Detroit is important to the film too. Early on, Tess is chased by a homeless man who tries to warn her about the house. The neighborhood features bombed out buildings and chilling depictions of the city’s decay. After Tess’ successful job interview to work on a documentary film, the director expresses dismay and shock that Tess stays in Brightmoor. She repeatedly tells her it’s unsafe. Yet, despite the fact she’s making a doc about young artists sweeping up these Detroit houses, she doesn’t seem concerned about fixing up one of Detroit’s worst neighborhoods. Keith is similar. He confesses to Tess that he’s one of the founders of a group that houses young artists in Detroit. Yet, it’s unclear if he cares about the city or his own personal reputation. Is he using the city for his own benefit like the filmmaker? It seems so.
When Tess busts out of the basement, police ignore her. However, gunshots in another neighborhood force the cops to respond. It’s like they too have abandoned a neighborhood in dire need. But they’re also forced to response elsewhere, moving from one crisis to another.
Detroit’s current state is juxtaposed with flashbacks that introduce the monster’s story. The movie’s other villain Frank (Richard Brake) kept her as a sex slave. When we first see him, it’s the early 1980s. There’s talk of recession. One neighbor tells Frank he’s selling the house because the neighborhood is going to hell and he fears his family will be stuck there. All of this, including Frank’s grisly crimes, occur in what’s still a relatively safe and normal neighborhood. There are shots of kids riding their bikes and neighbors watering their lawns, waving to Frank.
Yet, this is the beginning of Detroit’s fall, the start of Reaganism and trickledown economics. Frank is also the true fiend hiding in plain sight, kidnapping women and impregnating them in his basement. In the present, AJ encounters Frank, bedridden in the basement. He unearths the creep’s countless VHS tapes, with labels of women he abducted over the years. What’s scarier than a ghoul living next door, who, on the surface, like Noman Bates, appears perfectly normal?
Barbarian’s Memorable Monster(s) and the Inversion of the American Dream
The film clicks because of its memorable and complex mother/monster played by Matthew Patrick Davis. She wants a child, and she treats AJ and Tess like her kids, feeding them bottles. She also has a TV in a dingy room that constantly plays videos about mothering techniques, including breastfeeding. This makes for some gnarly and really, really weird scenes. Take it a step further and see it as an inversion of the American dream. She wants what she sees on TV, but she’s a grotesque inversion of that dream, mirroring Detroit’s collapse. Brightmoor’s abandoned houses are another symbol of that.
However, this film also works so well because, like Norman Bates, the mother isn’t a one-note character. She does garner some sympathy. We know what Frank did to her. We know that she’s a prisoner. The final scene between she and Tess shows her humanness. Does she kill? Yes. But she only does so when the characters refuse to indulge in her bizarre mothering instincts.
Barbarian‘s social commentary isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t hit you over the head, either. The film scares and delights because of its willingness to take risks and defy expectations. Its monster is also downright terrifying with a very, very tragic story. Detroit, meanwhile, is a character unto itself, a husk of its glorious past reduced to charred buildings and delipidated houses. Barbarian is raw and ruthless and not without something to say.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.