November 9, 2022
As the Halloween season came and went, I found myself severely disadvantaged in the spooky department. For me, the current horror falls under a universal trap: an over-reliance on the shock factor. Whether it’s bouncing jumpscares with shrill music queues or a barrage of horrifying visuals, modern horror hasn’t scratched a certain itch in me ever since The witch in 2015. I have to say I was skeptical when I read a synopsis by Zach Creggers barbarian. The film’s presumed setting of being an AirBnB was almost to contemporary, on a staggering scale. I depicted a situation that seemed all too real and expected this to be the next one unfriended; where the world takes a horrific turn in 2022. This expectation of mine lasted for the first thirty minutes barbarian. However, this was a false reassurance that was masterfully conveyed to viewers. barbarian hunts down a seasoned horror viewer’s expectations of what a horror film should be.
To say that this film successfully subverted my expectations is an understatement. Once the main arc of the storyline takes off, don’t take your foot off the gas. I would do anyone a disservice by providing accurate information on where the story leads once it goes deeper than the humble rental home. The pace propelled the audience in an unsettling manner; Once the main action begins, there are minimal pauses to allow the audience to recover from one surprising moment to the next. The story’s resolution is perhaps where the action-packed pace reigns supreme, as the suspense almost dies out before abruptly rushing into high gear to reach the final ending.
The performances in barbarian are the solid emotional heart of this film, as one would expect from an A24. Georgina Campbell gives an excellent performance as Tess, a wonderfully refreshing protagonist. She is incredibly smart and logical in coping with the frightening circumstances of her situation. From logical precautions to “McGyvering” problem solving, Tess is the opposite of most horror movie heroes. Bill Skarsgård also delivers a master class in a more subdued awkwardness than his other horror roles.
As is the case with most A24 film, barbarian has wonderfully done cinematography. Wide-angle shots, angled to cover multiple rooms of the house at once, really stand out, showing action happening in multiple locations at once. The use of light and dark is also notable here, as it uses what the audience can see (and more importantly what we can’t see) to amazing effect. Horror movie staples of shaky handheld cameras are used tastefully without over-reliance on them to instill fear in audiences. Later in the film there is a very interesting first-person shot, perhaps the most cinematically interesting shot in the entire film. The sound design is also remarkable here. The sound mixing was particularly striking, as the title card showed; a cacophony of screams, some in terror and others in joy.
Perhaps my best hope for the film is that some of its themes are there, or sadly absent. Beneath the surface of a fairly nuanced and deliberate horror film, I see some sort of larger dialogue on a variety of political issues. Surprisingly, Reagan-era politics seems to be the film’s biggest theme. barbarian Attempts to convey this in several ways, but all are half measures: it shows the problem of conservative economics in the 1980s without really making a message out of it. Ironically, most of this film’s horror was caused by this unseen force, but I wish we could see how the issues are actually relevant to our protagonists today. Perhaps my view is tainted by creators like Jordan Peele, who can effectively weave terror into a depiction of our political landscape.
Overall I would suggest you watch this movie. I have to intentionally limit how much of the film’s plot I discuss because so much of the impact comes from seeing it with no expectations. There’s something brilliant about that for sure as I felt trapped by the first watch. However, with secondary and tertiary viewing, I began to lose interest as there wasn’t much actual substance behind the twists and turns.