Barbarian blends horror and comedy with bizarre results
The connection between horror and comedy is closer than one might think. Both often involve an element of surprise, resulting in either a scream or a big laugh in reaction to something unexpected. Perhaps that’s why some people best known for comedy are wading into the horror waters, including Jordan Peele in recent years and now Zach Cregger, known best for the show The Whitest Kids U’Know.
Cregger’s first attempt at horror is Barbarian, a seemingly straightforward haunted house film that turns into something completely off-the-wall. Tess (Georgina Campbell) has rented an Airbnb in Detroit in advance of a job interview. Arriving late on a rainy night, Tess discovers Keith (Bill Skarsgård) already in the house, claiming that the house had been double-booked through a different service.
The awkward and potentially dangerous situation soon turns into something quite different when they discover that the house’s basement has hidden rooms and passageways. Without delving into spoilers, suffice it to say that the house contains some truly disturbing things, revealing secrets about its former owner, its current owner (Justin Long), and the run-down neighborhood in which it is located.
Cregger, who both wrote and directed the film, takes an interesting approach to the film. For the first 45 minutes or so, it feels like your standard horror setup, with Tess rightfully wary of Keith, and subtle clues that malevolent forces are present in the house. The final hour, however, takes on a completely different tone, introduces previously unknown characters and storylines, and generally goes from creepy AF to hilarious WTF territory.
The result is a kind of A movie/B movie hybrid, one that is just as effective at delivering scares as it is in eliciting laughs and gasps of disbelief. Cregger does a great job at setting the mood throughout, something that becomes especially tricky as he moves back-and-forth between tones in the second half of the film.
Also affecting the mood is the addressing of various social issues. While far from the main focus, topics such as white flight, #MeToo, and toxic masculinity all work their way into the story. Anyone on the Detroit tourism board is likely to hate the film, as it does all it can to put at least a certain section of the city in a very bad light, along with the city’s police force.
Campbell is an English actor who’s perhaps best known in the U.S. for her part in the Black Mirror episode “Hang the DJ.” She’s effective in all aspects of this role, from the accent to the trepidation to the abject terror. The casting of Skarsgård is clever, as he played Pennywise in It, keeping viewers constantly guessing what kind of person his character truly is.
Barbarian, like its seemingly random title, is a difficult movie to properly explain. It gets by mostly on vibes and the pure audacity of Cregger, who manages to entertain despite combining a number of elements that probably shouldn’t work well together.
Barbarian is now playing in theaters.