For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
(Normally I wouldn’t do this for a movie that’s over a year old, but SPOILERS for Barbarian. If you have any interest in watching this, it should be done with as little info as possible.)
Over the past few years, I’ve made my way through a lot of horror franchises. Series like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Leprechaun, Saw, Scream, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to name a few. While there are a few hidden gems, there is also a ton of trash. And wading through that trash has made the horror genre a bit boring.
So when a movie like Barbarian comes along, it’s exciting.
Barbarian works so well because it is essentially two types of horror film in one. People have compared the first half to David Fincher and the second half to Sam Raimi. That’s an oversimplification, and it doesn’t give writer-director Zach Cregger enough credit, but it gives you the idea that this film is more than just one thing. Upon this rewatch, that stuck with me the most.
Barbarian can be enjoyed on multiple levels. That’s a bit of a cliché, but with this film it’s legitimate. There’s the two halves aspect, in which you get an effective, creepy horror film that keeps you guessing followed by the second half which is played more for laughs and gross-out scares. That alone appealed to me on my first watch because the horror genre can get exhausting. I often find myself watching a truly scary movie that becomes taxing by the end. How many times can a jump scare or strange noise or creature be scary before you get used to it? The same goes for the horror-comedy aspect; the joke can quickly get stale. But Barbarian, switches things up before you can get used to them, which also makes it scary because you have no clue where the movie is going next.
But that’s surface-level enjoyment, which is fine for a first watch. What brought me back to Barbarian and made me like it more was a quote from Georgina Campbell’s character, Tess: “Guys get to blast their way through life making messes. Girls have to be careful.” This makes the two different halves of the film make thematic sense.
The first half of the movie seems like a fairly standard horror film, with Tess arriving at a double-booked Airbnb. Despite the red flag of the situation, Tess agrees to spend the night with the man who is already inside the house. Through her experience, we worry about whether or not the guy will end up being some creep, and we see strange movements in the house. As she investigates later, we feel dread as she discovers a horrific hidden room clearly used for kidnapping, rape and murder. This dread leads to full-on terror as the guy she’s staying with (he’s actually a good dude in a kind of twist) investigates even farther underground and gets killed by a monstrous woman (credited as the Mother), who is the product of generations of incestuous rape. The whole segment of the film is a long buildup of horrific tension culminating in that terrifying reveal. Then we cut to Justin Long as A.J., driving in a convertible singing along to Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi.”
With A.J., we move from the “Girls have to be careful” portion of the film to the “Guys get to blast their way through” section. Where Tess was scared and careful, A.J. is hilariously oblivious. He doesn’t care that the house he’s staying in is in the middle of what looks like a post-apocalyptic hellscape (an amazingly effective reveal during Tess’s segment). He riffles through the stuff left in the house, not considering what might have happened to the people who left the items. And, in arguably the funniest moment in the film, A.J.’s first response to discovering the horrific room for himself is researching to see if he can count the room as square footage in a real estate listing. He’s just grossed out a little by the room rather than horrified. Tess may have ignored a few red flags, but A.J. never even noticed them.
Once A.J. is finally put in danger along with Tess, the point is hammered home even more. Tess is doing what she needs to survive, playing it safe and waiting for a chance to escape. A.J. is too used to getting his way for this. He denies the baby bottle offered by the Mother and ends up in a forced breast-feeding situation (which adds another level to the film concerning its Me Too subplot).
Tess’s careful response gets her out of the house but she feels responsible for A.J. And this motherly instinct to save A.J. is almost her downfall because he’s still “blasting” through the situation — quite literally. He shoots Tess when she comes to save him. Despite this, she still sticks with him. In another hilariously depressing moment, A.J. seems to have an awakening after this and even considers the possibility that he “might be a bad person.” Less than three minutes later, he pushes Tess off a water tower. When he finds her alive, he tries to claim she slipped and fell. This man can learn nothing, and if he had been in Tess’s shoes, he would have left her back at the house with the Mother without a second thought. A.J. is such a piece of shit that, by the end, he is the true monster of the movie, and it’s a joyous moment when the Mother rips his head apart.
Horror movies have been making the victims unlikeable for years so we have an excuse to root for monsters like Jason and Freddy, but it’s typically handled in a superficial way with the character just being annoying. In A.J., Cregger has made a truly despicable character. It’s not that it’s fun to watch him die, it’s that he has to die.
Barbarian can be enjoyed simply as a two-for-one horror movie, and that alone makes it special. But the added depth of gender issues and horror told through different perspectives makes it a true rarity. I’ll keep watching trash horror, but it’s nice to have Barbarian any time I need to refresh my love for the genre.