Horror films can often come from the most unexpected of people. And perhaps surprisingly, a lot of these people end up being comedians.
Bobcat Goldthwait gave us the excellent Bigfoot found-footage film Willow Creek. Danny McBride was responsible in part for bringing Halloween back from the dead in 2018. And who would have thought the man behind this gem would go on to make such instant classics as Get Out, Us, and Nope?
I suppose it makes sense, really. After all, comedy and horror are such closely intertwined bedfellows that I would almost go so far to say that horror can’t exist without comedy, at least in some form. For the lows to hit as hard as they need to, speaking in terms of mood, you need highs to balance them out. A laugh can help recover from a scare, or conversely make a scare work even better in contrast. And horror, like comedy, is all about timing. So a comedian making the jump to horror isn’t quite as far-fetched as it sounds.
It shouldn’t be too much of a shock, then, to believe that one of the most genuinely effective and surprising horror films in recent years came from the mind of Whitest Kids You Know member Zach Cregger. For those poor bastards out there who don’t know, WKUK is an improve comedy troupe who’ve been around since the early 2000s, and who’ve given us such wonderful sketches as this:
I’ve been a huge fan of them for years now (rest in peace, Trevor Moore), so when I heard one of the group was making a horror flick, I had to check it out.
I knew virtually nothing about this film going in, having not even seen a trailer for it, and I suggest you do the same. This is the type of film that hits hardest (and believe me, it hits hard) when it catches you completely unawares. All you need to know going in is just the most basic of synopses: A young woman finds herself booked at the same sketchy Airbnb as another guy.
Crazy stuff then proceeds to happen.
That’s all I can give you without spoiling anything, which is a testament to just how much insanity happens in this film’s 100 minute runtime. Much like last year’s Malignant, the beauty of Barbarian is just how rapidly it descends into sheer anarchy, and the methods by which it does so are best enjoyed in the moment.
I can give you a little taste of what to expect, however. Take Psycho, Don’t Breathe, and Get Out, blend them all together, then toss in a healthy dose of the sheer WTF qualities possessed by films like REC and The Descent, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the type of film you’re walking into. It’s scary, it’s funny, and best of all, it’s probably the year’s most tense theater experience thus far. There are long stretches of this film where my heart was pounding like a jackhammer, expecting a scare that ultimately ended up coming from somewhere completely different. Cregger proves himself to be an absolute master of suspense and anticipation, stretching out moments just as long as needed to make them pulse-poundingly effective without ever overstaying their welcome.
I can’t really talk about many of the specifics surrounding the film, including things like individual performances, without giving too much away, so I’ll just say that absolutely everyone in this film brings their absolute A-game. I have to imagine that the script for Barbarian was downright captivating, so it’s no wonder it was able to attract so much talent for a film helmed by a relatively green writer and director.
It also has incredible direction and cinematography, with the blocking and framing in particular being stand-out highlights. A career of directing short-form comedy sketches seems to really translate well to long-form horror filmmaking, as both Jordan Peele and now Cregger seem to prove relatively conclusively. This, coupled with an amazing score and fantastic sound design make the technical aspects of the film astonishing for what was likely a budget that ran on the smaller side. Again, I can’t mention anything in particular, but there are moments where the Dolby sound in the theater made what was happening onscreen exponentially more unnerving.
What I will say about Barbarian, however, is that it’s not for those with weak stomachs, or those who are particularly squeamish. The film uses violence sparingly, as almost a punctuation to its scenes rather than the focal point, but when it’s present, it’s brutal. It has some of the most efficient and controlled usages of gore that I’ve seen in quite some time, and I applaud its restraint. As we know, what we don’t see is often ten times scarier than what we do, and Barbarian knows how to use this to its full advantage. Also, those who are especially sensitive (understandably) to sexual violence may want to avoid this one altogether. While nothing is ever explicitly shown, there are elements to the plot that some may find triggering.
I want talk about this movie at length, and really break down the underlying themes at play here. Like Get Out, Barbarian deftly blends comedy, horror, and genuine social commentary in such a masterful way that you barely notice it’s happening. It’s poignant without being preachy, terrifying without being oppressively dour, funny without every deflating its tone to the point of parody, and gross without ever being unnecessarily obscene. But I’ll save that for when people have really had a chance to see it.
Barbarian is genuinely one of the biggest surprises of the year, and I’m both shocked and grateful that it was able to see a wide release. While I don’t think this is going to be a huge money-maker, it deserves to be, and I urge anyone with horror predilections to go see this as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.
Now, if only this had come out in October, so I could use it to pad out my Halloween content. Then it would have been perfect…