Review: Barbarian (2022)

The conventions of horror are dismantled and rebuilt in this modern-day masterwork.

If your toddler hides behind the curtains of your home, in an attempt to scare you, the element of surprise is neutralised when spotting the baseline of his shoes from underneath. As a parent you are now aware of the threat and its location, so that when the little terrorist attempts his attack, it will fail. However, let’s pose the possibility that this particular child reads spy novels and is therefore, somehow informed on traditional concealment devices. The shoes are merely a distraction aimed at turning your back towards the couch, from where your kid will eventually jump out from, scaring the living shit out of you. 

This finally brings me to talk about the core subject of this article, Barbarian, and the deceitful nature with which the film induces horror into those who are fooled. If some of you are confused as to how this analogy ties in, the audience is the parent in search of the threat, the threat is the kid and well… Keith is the shoes. Keith is presented to us at the very beginning of the film in very suspicious circumstances. Following the main character of the film, Tess, we experience the narrative from her perspective. 

Director Zach Cregger stated in an interview “I wanted to write a scene with as many red flags that a man wouldn’t think twice about but I would say every woman would recognize”. The Airbnb Tess booked has Keith, a male stranger already staying there, and expectations of traditional gender roles in horror lead us to believe Keith must be a raging psychopath. Our intuitions are led on by Keith’s subtle attempts at keeping Tess up with him, as well as the suspenseful music and dark lighting, misleading viewers into a false sense of security, provided by a narrative audiences feel in control of. 

However, the movie takes on a sudden change of pace as characters inevitably start chatting and shockingly seem to have a lot in common. Keith’s eerie characterisation is overturned favouring a rather more charming and smooth approach, enticing the viewers to establish a feeling of trust towards him. The audience has been catapulted from what was, and inevitably will turn out to be, a terrifying horror film, into what they wish was a rom-com. It is these unexpected turns that the movie adopts which really bring out the tension in audiences. Keith not being the scary loner we expect him to be is one of the most terrifying realisations a viewer can have. 

As Cregger says it best “It’s all about being a step ahead of the audience, zigging when they expect you to zag, and timing. It’s just timing and tone. That’s the anatomy of a joke; that’s the anatomy of a scare”. The outline of Barbarian’s unusual approach to horror begins to surface as comedy and horror merge together in order to provide the best results for each. Both genres proceed hand in hand. Cregger provides punchlines where audiences expect horror, disrupting the tension before building it up again, teasing us, flirting with expectations of barbarity, but not quite delivering a satisfying ending. Similarly, by imposing this fluctuating structure, he knocks our socks off by eventually delivering the nightmarish scare we’ve all been waiting for.

The geniality of the film comes from the deep sense of betrayal we receive after only a short segment of the journey that is Barbarian as a whole. After that, we are brought to question all the certainties we thought we had in relation to horror tropes. We are left in a state of oblivion and the movie cleverly takes advantage of this vulnerability. Traditional gender roles are subverted as are conventional horror structures. This leaves us questioning, where do we go from here? Who do we fear? Maybe the concept of a dual nature is involved. This theory is led on by Keith’s questionable behaviours at night, but yet again, can we trust the signals the writers are sending out? The same writers who disregarded the element of horror for so long, only to unforgivingly swing it on us later, harder, fiercer. Within the realm of fiction, reality is distorted to a point of intentionally deceptive. What can and can’t be trusted? 

Given the intentional deceitful nature of the structure and the writing of the movie, Barbarian proves to be a truly terrifying film. Upon having drawn the curtains, the element of surprise is neutralised, and the shoes are just shoes. However, the strategy proves itself when not knowing about the hidden threats behind the couch, or hell, maybe not even the couch itself.