Section: Arts

Review: ‘Barbarian’ is a fresh horror despite tired tropes

This review of “Barbarian” (2022) contains spoilers. 

“Barbarian,” a 2022 horror film, finally made its way to streaming services this October, and in an attempt to avoid the mountain of final assignments I had piling up, I dove under my covers and watched the highly anticipated movie. 

The film follows protagonist Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) as she arrives at her Airbnb in Detroit, only to find that the house has been double-booked and she will have to share the residence with a stranger, Keith (Bill Skarsgård). Despite her concerns, Tess finds a much more urgent danger inside the house: a creature who lives in the basement and kidnaps people to play out her fantasy of motherhood. After capturing Tess and killing Keith, she takes AJ Gilbride (Justin Long), the owner of the Airbnb and a Hollywood actor fired after receiving sexual assault allegations, captive as well. Together, AJ and Tess attempt to escape the creature, discovering she is the incestuous product of a geriatric rapist. In the final scene, AJ tries to kill Tess in an act of self preservation, inciting the rage of the creature, who kills him and attempts to bring Tess back to the house. Tess, whose empathy has been her downfall throughout the film, hesitates to kill the creature, but ultimately pulls the trigger. 

Writer and director Zach Cregger was inspired by the self-help book The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Cregger recalled a chapter that encouraged “women to pay attention to these little minor red flags that men can give off in day-to-day situations.” This can be seen in the opening scenario between Tess and Keith in small moments like when Tess realizes he opened her bedroom door in the middle of the night. The casting of Skarsgård was an intentional choice on Cregger’s part, as audiences are familiar with him as the infamous Pennywise from “It” (2017). I found myself expecting him to be the antagonist because of this association and became immediately suspicious of his character even though he was the stereotypical nice guy. Using an actor that is known as a horror villain gives audiences an disturbed sensation when he appears on screen, mirroring how Tess would feel in her situation with Keith. In the same way that we are searching for indications that he might be the villain, Tess is looking for the red flags that tell her this man is dangerous. 

Since Cregger is telling a story about encountering “red flags,” the remainder of the story — where Tess is either being pursued, captured or harmed by the monster, who I interpreted to be a personification of rape — can be understood as an allegory for the consequences of ignoring these warning signs. Because of these themes, “Barbarian” is at times uncomfortable to watch, and this was emphasized by the cinematography, which includes quick, jarring shots and bizarre perspectives. 

Even though “Barbarian” does not avoid tropes, as it includes the classic final girl, plenty of jump scares, a series of clumsy escapes and a house with a history, the visual aspects of this film were unexpected and suspenseful. The worst of the tropes included was the harbinger, a homeless man living on the same street as the Airbnb. In the horror genre, the harbinger delivers an ominous warning or explanation of mysterious circumstances. The harbinger in “Barbarian” is a poorly developed character who dies the instant his onscreen purpose is fulfilled. I was disappointed that an otherwise excellently written movie, where the rest of the characters were all representative of perpetrators or victims of sexual assault, that this character was dull and practically irrelevant. 

Additionally, Cregger’s choice to kill the monster was dissatisfying. The concept of rape cannot be killed or erased. I believe Cregger was attempting to portray Tess as a victim who overcame rape by killing her monster. However, at this point in the film, the monster has been established as a victim herself, and considering Tess’s empathetic character, it did not make sense for her to kill the creature. An ending more cohesive to the allegory of assault would have had the monster and Tess both survive the final scene, showing that while this violence can be escaped, it cannot be eliminated. 

Overall, I admire the way Cregger tackled this topic. I was thoroughly entertained through the 105-minute run time and found myself delightfully disturbed by the imagery. Each actor gave a phenomenal performance, complemented by the creative cinematography and sound design. Recently, horror movies have either seemed to be A24 art films or slashers that follow a predictable, trope-filled format. “Barbarian” is for audiences who appreciate both but are tired of watching the same two movies over and over again. Whether you are a fan of the genre or not, “Barbarian” is a suspenseful and meaningful watch. 


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