An Honest Review of 2022’s Barbarian

Cabin in the Woods is a bad movie. Sorry for coming off so strong at the beginning, but that is something I have had on my chest since about 2012. 

Now, it is “cool” to shit all over Joss Whedon. Recent, rather lackluster, offerings in “Amazing Spiderman” and Avengers, should suffice in making my point. However, many of his die-hards are sure to point to Cabin for its monolithic fingerprint on the horror industry. 

For good reason, as well: the characters, while archetypal, are likable enough and it is genuinely a fun experience. Until the second half. 

The “twist” of a secret organization holding iconic monsters in the basement of a cabin was mind-bogglingly stupid. It’s the type of maneuver a writer would use to write themselves out of a corner while trying their damndest to convince you that this isn’t just self-indulgent drivel. 

The most disappointing aspect for me, of course, was the lack of rules. When crafting a parody of an entire genre, I would assume that you would study to understand what rules of the genre you’re breaking, and more importantly, you must have rules of your own. 

We return to the idea of the archetypal characters. This alone doesn’t do it for me when dissecting the genre. Did Scream rest on the laurels of simply this? Cabin feels like it is struggling under the weight of its concept so much so that it forgets to set its own rules. 

Barbarian (2022), directed by Zach Cregger, luckily avoids this by keeping its rules lean: subvert. Horror was simply the playground. 

Let’s start with the title. Moreso, the scene in which the title is revealed to us. Our lead, Tess, arrives at an Airbnb. A man’s call comes across her phone as she navigates her host’s instructions to get in. This will not be the last time that his presence will be felt. 

For a moment in the pouring, freezing rain, it feels incessant and heavy. You can feel him on your shoulders. She clumsily gathers to the door and attempts to get inside through the key lock box, but it’s empty. 

Luckily…? a man is already inside. Why is he here? The residence has been double booked. Okay. But why is he acting so weird? He’s nice and inviting, but his movements imply something sinister. How can’t it? It’s pouring rain, pitch black, and a man named Marcus is blowing up her phone. 

At this point, the audience is yelling at her to get back in her car and find a hotel, or just go home. It’s a horror movie after all. The director did his job: spooky music, impending dread. So we do our job. 

Naturally, she enters the house. Title screen. As we settle into our seats, the conductor rolls up his sleeves. Remember where we are. Remember the rules. 

Surprising twists around the corner

Tess reluctantly makes herself at home. She and the stranger go through the natural first steps of your average meet-cute: interrogation and potential gaslight. The stranger shows her his confirmation that he should be here while telling her all of the reasons why she shouldn’t leave. 

She is rightfully skeptical of every word that passes his lips but eventually agrees to stay. The atmosphere is eerie, but almost artificially so. Jumpscares in these opening moments of Barbarian are obligatory and forced with one moment actually generating a belly laugh from me. The mirror of modern horror reflects directly at us. These are the same devices used to pad a runtime of the most underappreciated genre in full effect. 

The night turns to day without further incident. Tess clearly feels a connection to her roommate at this point and him, to her. The sweat is pouring down the seat rest as every moment passes that she doesn’t leave this house, but here we are. And where we are has fallen into disarray. 

She opens the house’s front door and sees her surroundings in the daylight. Derelict homes, lost to time, leaning off their foundations as far as the eye can see. Tess tries not to internalize this reality because she needs to focus on a job interview. While here, her interviewer tells her that she shouldn’t stay in that neighborhood. Letting Tess in on the “secret” that we have been screaming at the screen for the last half hour. LEAVE. This next section is chef’s kiss. Let’s get into it.

Tess returns to an empty Airbnb and decides to look around. She ends up in the basement where she finds a rope connected to a false wall. Pulling it reveals a long, dank hallway. At the end of this long, dank hallway is a room one can only assume was used for some rather nefarious purposes. 

Barbarian is a refreshing take on horror

The audience at this point is expecting the stranger to return home and lock her in the room. You know, start the horror movie. When the stranger returns, he behaves how we would expect someone who has constructed a torture room to react: denial and more gaslighting. It turns out that not only has this man been truthful from the start, but he is the first death. This moment sets a precedent for a cavalcade of emotions that continues to unfold and subvert until its final moments. 

Unfortunately, I watched this movie at home, and it feels like I was robbed of an experience. Barbarian feels like a dying breed in the age of television and personalized entertainment. It’s a piece that requires an audience. It moves with tempo and momentum, sucking the air out of the room and giving it back just as your lungs start to burn. Symphonic in structure, but humble in its presentation. 

Barbarian is a lovely film, and it seems that audiences are responding to it well with a budget of 4.5 million and a box office of 46 million. Only time will tell if this will enter the hallowed halls of modern horror with Get Out and Cabin in the Woods or amongst the sleeper masterpieces with Possessor and Cut of the Dead. 

Have you seen Barbarian yet? What are your thoughts on the film? Join the conversation in the comments section!

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