Barbarian, Zach Cregger’s wild new horror film, is a tense ride from start to finish. Following an ill-fated AirBnB trip in a decrepit neighborhood outside of Detroit, Tess (Georgina Campbell) is shocked when she discovers that she isn’t the only one staying in her rental.
Barbarian doesn’t hesitate to bring the uncanniness of the paranormal into reality. Apart from the film’s horrifying twists, it also examines the fears that women constantly face in modern society. Barbarian isn’t a perfect film but it certainly proves that playing with expectations can lead to a horrifying experience.
Director: Zach Cregger
Release Date: September 9, 2022 (Theatrical)
I believe that Barbarian is one of those movies that is best watched without knowing what’s going to happen. I only saw the trailer a couple of times before going to see it and it made the whole moviegoing experience so entertaining. Everyone in the theater was invested, with exclaims of “what?” every time the screen cut to black.
Barbarian starts with a (somewhat) realistic take on one of the scariest situations a woman could find herself in. Tess pulls up in the middle of the night to her Airbnb, the only standing home in a rundown neighborhood. Red flag number 1. She then discovers that she’s locked out and can’t reach the property owner. Red flag number 2. The next red flag is revealed when Keith (Bill Skarsgård) opens the door. The two of them somehow double-booked the AirBnB, and after some convincing Tess stays the night with Keith.
While this seems a little unbelievable, Tess does take some precautions. But contrary to all the red flags, Keith is just a charming man and Tess begins to trust him. His polite charm disarms her worry, only for it to reignite when suspicious things happen in the house. The next day is when things rapidly spiral out of control and Tess finds herself in the middle of an entirely new horror story.
Barbarian‘s strengths lay in its masterful, yet elusive, storytelling. What starts out as a very contained story at the beginning (even with the whole cave basement reveal) turns into a sprawling tale that spans multiple decades. We’re introduced to AJ (Justin Long), an actor accused of sexual assault, and Frank (Richard Brake), a serial rapist from the 1980s. These two men become metaphors for the types of fears that women like Tess feel around unknown men, and are foils for Keith’s character. But who knows, Keith might have had his own dark past (after all, Tess never actually looked him up).
These two men heavily impact the trajectory of the story’s meaning and the way it ends. Frank is violently misogynistic, with a disturbing desire to dominate women physically and sexually. AJ is a more modern man who thinks that he isn’t capable of rape, although he still holds sexist viewpoints against women.
The design of the world of Barbarian also informs audiences of its core message, which is to trust your gut instinct at all times. Below the overly perfect Airbnb, surrounded by the bones of other houses, is a dark and eerie labyrinth. Filled with traps and secret rooms, the underworld of Barbarian would make anyone shiver in fear. And that’s what Tess does until she’s led below by a wailing Keith.
Once trapped, Tess is introduced to a horrifying secret that tops the cave system. An unbelievably strong woman, simply called Mother (Matthew Patrick Davis), is the product of inbreeding from Frank’s violent rape of the women he kidnapped and brought to his house. Mother thinks of Tess as her baby, and Tess tries to work together with AJ to escape but he is unwilling to listen.
AJ’s fear paralyzes him, while Tess has the capacity to use clues around her to survive. After all, she survived two weeks alone before AJ found her. Barbarian unpacks fear and intuition in a nuanced manner, combining relevant reasons that women are hesitant around men in both a realistic and paranormal manner. There’s Frank’s creepy collection of tapes where he rapes his victims and AJ’s self-centered reasons for being upset about the allegations against him.
But perhaps the most horrifying example of how Barbarian brings these fears to screen is through Mother herself. A lonely, misunderstood woman who grew up with only Frank (the story’s true monster) around, who desires being a mother because she wants to care and nurture someone else. When examining Mother’s actions and her attachment to Tess’s character it’s easy to empathize with her and see how the amalgamation of these fears manifested in her character.
The nurturing nature of a mother becomes something barbaric and misinterpreted by the men of Barbarian, while Tess plays into it. Sure, Tess is still afraid of Mother but she understands her, her fears, and her desires. This ends up saving Tess, as she uses Mother’s devotion to her “baby” to eventually kill Mother and escape the nightmare of the desolate neighborhood.
While some might not agree with me, I found Barbarian to be a feminist film at its core. Barbarian takes the very real fears that women face on a daily basis and twists them into an even more horrifying experience for everyone. The only way to survive in Barbarian is to let your instincts guide you, though we all know that isn’t foolproof. Barbarian shows that if something feels off, it probably is.
If you’ve watched Barbarian you know how the rest of the story plays out, and if you haven’t seen it yet you definitely should. While I don’t know how well the film will hold up for a second viewing (and that’s really the only negative thing I have to say about the film), I think Barbarian takes the rational fears faced by many people, mainly women, and twists them into something deeper and even more malevolent.
But seriously, how did Mother get so strong?