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Why 'Barbarian' might be the scariest film you see this year
The horror film everyone's talking about backs up its own hype.
If you follow the world of horror films at all, by now you've no doubt heard the hype about Barbarian, the somewhat mysterious new film from writer/director Zach Cregger that's been drawing praise from genre fans ever since it premiered at San Diego Comic-Con earlier this year. It's one of those films that seems to have generated some very organic, very sincere hype thanks to a handful of festival and convention appearances and the right words from people who know the genre.
Well, as a horror nerd myself, I'm here to tell you: Believe the hype.
In keeping with the advice from so many fans of the film that new viewers should go in as cold as possible, I'm going to avoid spoilers beyond mentioning the premise as it's set up by the trailer (and believe me, you could watch that trailer 1,000 times and still have no idea where this film is going). But I do still want to take a moment to examine Barbarian in the context of its hype, and the way crowds are reacting to this wild, dark, unpredictable tale. It's more than just secrecy. In fact, in execution alone, Barbarian just might be the scariest film you end up seeing this year.
Barbarian begins with a young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) arriving at a rental home in Detroit in the middle of the night, only to find that it's been double-booked. Keith (Bill Skarsgard) is already staying at the house, having booked it through a different app, leaving both of them put out and confused. They try to make the best of the situation anyway, and... well, that's when things start to get weird.
What Tess and Keith find in that house, where it comes from, and what it means for the rest of the film are all things I'm going to do my best to skirt around here, but what's remarkable about this setup is how effectively Barbarian leans right away into the idea that there's something creepy not just about sharing a home with a stranger, but about rental homes in general. If you've ever rented an Airbnb or something like that, you might recognize that sense of the unknowable lurking around you when you try and settle into the place. Hotels have their own strangeness about them, yes, but there's something about walking into a private home that doesn't belong to you or anyone you know, finding certain doors locked and certain things arranged in ways you can't account for, that's unsettling from the beginning. Throw in the prospect of sharing the dwelling with a stranger who may or may not be crazy in their own way, and everything is uneasy, no matter how gregarious you are.
So you have this baseline of tension, of dread, lurking in Barbarian even before anything especially strange happens. Then, as certain events conspire to lure Keith and Tess into exploring the reaches of the house beyond the living areas, things get stranger, and darker, until the film takes a very sudden, very effective shift from creepy to all-out horrifying. How and why it does that is, again, something I'm not going to talk about for the sake of those of you who still want to get out there and see this film, but suffice it to say I've been thinking about it ever since I screened Barbarian three days ago.
But of course, lots of films successfully execute that moment, so what is it about Barbarian that makes it so special? How does this film manage to stand as one of the scariest movie experiences you're likely to have in a year packed with great horror releases? The answer is twofold. First, Cregger has a very keen sense of the time and place in which he's set his story. Barbarian takes place in a forgotten corner of America, a place where even police don't pay much attention, if they even show up at all. There's a certain allure to these kinds of places for horror storytellers, a sense that we truly have no idea what might be going on behind closed doors just about anywhere, and Barbarian exploits that to maximum effect. Throw in a young woman of color in a leading role, and some backstory we won't get into here, and you've got a story about the ways in which pain and cycles of violence are allowed to perpetuate in corners of the world people would rather not think about.
Second, Barbarian works so well because it's a film that absolutely never stops inviting the viewer to ask questions. They begin the moment we realize something weird happened with a double booking of a rental house, and they continue right up until the final frame. That's good for keeping us glued to the screen, but in Barbarian it works especially well because, while there's a constantly moving train of answers in the film, we never get all the answers. There are depths to this film's brutality, its origins, and breadth, that we never get to see. There are motives beyond what's shown onscreen and what the characters can fathom. There are pieces of this puzzle still buried deeper than Barbarian is able to go, but the film's attention to detail and craft is able to make us think about those pieces even if we never see them. The result is a film that embeds itself in your consciousness and never lets go, and an unforgettably wild experience at the movies.
Barbarian is now in theaters.
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