31 Days of Horror – October 8th – “Barbarian”

First of all, I’m wildly aware that I’m late to this party. No, this isn’t one of those “Whaaat? You haven’t seen that??” kind of movies. Barbarian came out last year but everybody went nuts for it. I remember being on TIkTok and everyone in the movie community, especially within the world of horror movies, was going nuts for this movie. It developed this shroud of mystery around it as well. There was this guerilla sort of aspect to the way word of the film spread. Everyone was talking about it and how much they loved it but it was as if everyone was sworn to some kind of secrecy. It’s like it was a club that you were in if you’d seen the film and that always turns me off for some reason. I know sometimes that’s because whatever the project is actually warrants that kind of admiration from the public. I was resistant to Stranger Things for the longest time but then when I finally gave in I found that I enjoyed it. I didn’t go crazy over it but I did find it to be an entertaining program. I think I find myself in a similar sort of boat with this film.

Barbarian IMDb

As with many modern horror films I could tell that there was meaning under the surface to what was unfolding in the plot as the movie opens up. It opens with Tess driving on a rainy evening as she looks for her airbnb. The dark of the night and the rain really obscure the environment around her before she finally stumbles upon her rental. Checking the details of her reservation she makes her way in the rain up to the porch only to find that the lockbox with the key to be empty leaving her seemingly stranded. As she makes her way back to the car to wait for a return call from someone at the travel agency, a light in the front window comes on and she goes back up to the porch to attempt to talk wo whoever is inside. Keith, played by Bill Skarsgaard, is the current resident as the two quickly find that the house has been double booked, much to Tess’s chagrin. There’s very clear and present tension as the audience is just as wary as to Keith’s nature. Is he friend or foe? Eventually she gives in to his invitation to come inside and we tread tense emotional waters for the next 15 minutes or so even as things seem to ease on the surface between Tess and Keith. Eventually the two become convivial and there even seems to be a slight notation that things may have blossomed into something more friendly than anticipated but ultimately the two close out their evening and head to bed. There’s a bump in the night that reminds us this is still definitely a horror movie and that our two current protagonists may very well not be alone in the house.

Morning comes and everything looks a little different. Keith has already left and Tess gets ready for her interview, the inciting event for her travel in the first place, and heads out the door. As she leaves the neighborhood in the light of day she’s much more aware of how sketchy the neighborhood around them is. Not just worn down but significantly dilapidated, if not generally abandoned. Their rental on Barbary street seems to be an incredible anomaly compared to the run down shacks that share the surrounding avenues. It does give even more cause for concern. Once again it feels not quite heavy handed in what this represents but the duality of the nature of things in the dark vs. things in the light stands out at this point. The house seems inviting but the area around it presents something to be desired. Even once Tess has completed her interview and things seem to have gone remarkably well, when asked where she’s staying in town and responds with her area, the woman doing the interview doesn’t just seem surprised but genuinely concerned that she’s taken up temporary residence in that part of town and is warned to be careful while staying there at the very least.

Once Tess returns home she is once again visibly uneasy about the location of her rental and is greeted by a crazy homeless man who is our first real jump scare on screen. He chases her inside the house, to which she just narrowly escapes his clutches. This is where I started checking out. At least concretely. While the effort to paint a picture of a terrifically rundown part of town was not wasted on me, the urgency to vacate wasn’t quite as palpable as it was at this point as Tess stood catching her breath on the other side of the front door. This is when I’m out, in real life and that’s what bugs me about movies like this. Some movies ask you to suspend belief in order to enjoy their movie. Whether it’s science fiction or fantasy or with the steady rise in popularity of the super hero genre, action movies also ask you to realistically alter your expectations of what is and is not possible. When that’s the case, it’s easy to jump into anything that can and does happen. Some people, not specifically looking at most of the Star Wars fans right now, like to take the world building to an extreme and poke holes in “rules” that do or do not exist. Whatever has been created, many seek to dismantle for whatever reason. BUT in movies like this, the social contract between the viewer and the director and/or writer seems to be drenched in the notion that you are staying firmly within the bounds or reality. If we are operating in that realm, the stakes are higher. If Jason is killing off kids at a camp you can relax because that’s unlikely to be how your next woodsy vacation is going to turn out. But if the scares are meant to be relatable, in any way, that seems to make them more intense because maybe this could really happen to me! Oh no! But if that’s the case then when things get pushed too far, that’s when I’m bouncing. I don’t need for Bigfoot or Aliens to show up to break that reality fourth wall. I just need a scenario in which I’m not sticking around to present itself for me to dip out. And if I’m staying at this rental property at the moment and I’m stacking up all the events of the last 24 hours, then it’s time to leave. The rental was double booked which caused a problem but we got around it. There was a weirdness in the middle of the night but I can shake that off due to the weird nature of the situation. In the light of day it’s clear that I’m staying in a neighborhood the crackhead rated “would not recommend” on Yelp. Now I’ve narrowly escaped being accosted by some crazy homeless man. Time to pack my stuff and get out of dodge. So the fact that Tess does not do this means I’m not starting to pull away from her as my on screen buddy. The further away she and I get from each other, the less vested in this story I become because she’s no longer my avatar in this movie. She’s now the lady who DIDN’T leave when she clearly should have.

To make matters worse she ends up getting accidentally locked in the basement while trying to locate some toilet paper. It’s not the creepiest basement in the world but being locked in somewhere is not my idea of a good time. I’m not super claustrophobic but for some reason the later on in my life I go, the bigger problem I have with the notion of being unable to leave a space. Not sure why, but that’s a fun part of turning 40. But while she’s down there and exploring she finds a hidden door. To a hidden hallway. With another room. Where there’s a bed, a bucket and a camera. If we were at a full fledged NOPE before we are now firmly at NOT TODAY, SATAN! But she’s still stuck. She has the key so Keith can’t get in and her phone is upstairs. I know that had to be the case and it’s not totally suspending belief but it is convenient to the plot that in 2023 a young person would be unattached to their phone just long enough for it to really create a problem. Eventually Keith returns and she’s able to give him the key through a ground level window and he lets her out of the basement. Now it’s clearly time to go. She’s free. She has her stuff. Time to go. Whatever the alternative is at this point, it’s a million times better than staying in this house for 5 more minutes. She’s somewhat frantically relaying what she found in the basement to Keith who is having a hard time understanding what is going on and needs to verify for himself for some reason. OK cool. You do you, Keith. It’s been wonderful. We ended up having an oddly enjoyable evening last night in the middle of one of the worst/weirdest situations I’ve ever been in but we are NOT best friends right now and I’m outtie 5000. That’s just it. But Keith wants to check it out and he asks her to stay upstairs just in case he gets locked in the basement. There are clearly alternatives that could be explored if that’s how he needs to roll. Tie the door handle to something else. Put a chair there to stop the door from closing. Whatever you need to do. But she waits. This is me pulling back more now. She’s still inside, and I’m out in the car with my GPS mapping a route to literally anywhere less apocalyptic at this point.

Tess is still quite shaken and Keith has been downstairs for a while now. Calling down. No answer. She goes back downstairs. This is just her and me getting further apart. She’s in the basement, I’m just at the onramp to the highway headed towards a Chili’s where I can go get myself a cheeseburger and some chips and queso for $11. Tess heads down the hall now. Gets to the end of the hall and finds ANOTHER SECRET DOOR. This time it leads to a murder staircase down into the belly of the earth. Now we’re outside of realism. She calls out for Keith and hears a faint shout for help back. Honestly I just can’t at this point. There’s no level of rational curiosity that says go any further than the room with the nasty bed and the bucket and the camera. Bad things happened here and it’s time for all of the everyone to just leave. Come on, Keith. We’re gonna split the baby back ribs instead of a cheeseburger. Let’s go together. We all know the Chili’s jingle. We can sing it while we’re on the way. Heck, I’m buying at this point. Whatever it takes. But he’s already down at the bottom of the murder stairs where there’s darkness and so many other bad things down there. But Keith is just a curious little fella. Like a cat. That’s why his friends call him “Whiskers”. Because he’s curious like a cat. A dead cat. So dead.

Honestly I’m not going to traipse through the rest of the plot as it darts here and there but you can use your imagination to envision the bad things that happen. Some you’re probably right on. You probably guessed it. Others, you’re not even close. You don’t know what’s happening or why but it’s definitely happening. Doesn’t even totally make sense how you got to this point. But the movie plays on and other bad things happen. All of them just continue to take me further and further out of the film. While Tess goes one way, I’m now watching the free HBO out at the Radisson by the airport. Sure, there was supposedly a convention in town but apparently Dr. Garret Albright of Montpelier, VT who specializes in spinal injuries got some nasty food poisoning after visiting a local rib joint (NOT Chili’s) last night and has decided to curtail his weekend at the medical convention, leaving a serendipitous vacancy just in time for us to claim. That’s where I’m at now. I’m not still in this movie waiting for something to come screeching out of the darkness. I’ve seen that movie. I’ve played that game. This is where realism has left the building. And I know the movie has to do some of this to get us into that danger. But it’s also why in real life we’d never go back in that basement. Keith didn’t need to check it out. And he needed to know that if he was going to do that, no you weren’t going to wait for him. He was doing so at his own peril. Because if you want to save Keith, you leave at the same time. Now there’s no movie if that happens but that’s also why I can’t be scared by the “realism” anymore. Because we aren’t behaving realistically anymore.

Now I will say that the rest of the film does take some interesting twists and turns. There’s whole other parts of the plot we haven’t even broached and I’m not going to. I know I’m not selling the movie very well at this point but this is just my take on it. Overall, it’s a decent movie. I’m a bit premature in the place where I would normally rate the movie but I’d probably give it a 5.5/10. Maybe 5.75. I’m not on the bandwagon for this one. At least not the way so many people seemed to latch onto this movie. I saw so many people going nuts over Barbarian and I think it was more because it was kind of like this club you could be in more than anything else. There seemed to be this sort of exclusivity to being someone who went to a theater and sat through this movie for 90 minutes or whatever the run time was. I think because in the modern era of spoiler laden trailers and all the hype that movies tend to get, this one had that Blair Witch sort of feel that made you think you were part of an insider collective. And while I appreciate the fact that even a year later this movie hadn’t been spoiled for me yet, it also didn’t blow me away when I got to the end of it all. There was no “I see dead people” plot twist. There were some decent scares. And some of the material was considerably twisted. I liked that the effects were almost entirely practical and I even really appreciated that there seemed to be an intentionality to the themes and structure of the film. They were clearly trying to make some insightful points and I liked how they went about that in some of the more deftness of hand in the beginning of the film. But I will say that by the end I was pretty removed from the intimacy of the film so the scares just felt distant and a little forced. Not bad. But also not good either. It’s new and there’s some merit to what was done here so I will recommend it. But I think this is one of those movies that for me did not live up to the hype. No matter how much I try and remove that from the overall picture, I can’t help but note that some of the disappointment does come from the fact that everyone spoke so highly of this movie. I’ve done my best to remove my expectations from the content. And I feel like I’ve done as good of a job with that as I can. But at the end of it, my ticket into the madness couldn’t get punched because I parted ways with Tess too early. A different mechanism may have kept me in the mix by necessity. But the fact that she had ample time and opportunity to get herself out of this whole mess and realistically chose not to just meant that I couldn’t take her seriously as the heroine of the film that I truly wanted her to be. I thought in that respect her legs got cut out from underneath her and while the ending was satisfactory enough, I was just pretty meh by the end.

I know that all sounds probably pretty harsh and I truly didn’t mean for it to be. I think I was a little disappointed with that I thought was going to be a much better opportunity to really enjoy a modern horror film of some note, I was left wanting. There were some really great elements. The cinematography at times was fantastic. The camera angles and maneuvers were impeccable and really made the move stand out visually quite a bit. Juxtapose some of the color work of some bright and vibrant scenes against the internal shots that were incredibly eerie due to the overpoweringly limited visibility of the darkness and you’ve got some amazing camera work that creates a world that’s interesting to be present in for the bulk of the film. There’s interesting cuts and intersections of storyline that connect a little wonky but still seem to have enough connective tissue to keep the story moving easily enough. There’s interesting exposition at times explaining what it is that’s going on and a lot left to be interpreted by the viewer. There’s some interesting social takes on certain plot points as well. The commentary can be a little heavy handed but in the right light it makes sense with some of the early messaging they kicked the film off with initially. So it all comes together somewhat nicely in that respect. Just because I was taken out of the plot about a third of the way in does not mean I just checked out entirely and played on my phone for the remaining bulk of it. I was engaged with the material, it just meant the scares probably weren’t going to be as intense and I was right. The jumps they wanted me to feel were a little lackluster just because I wasn’t as emotionally vested. But by and large, it still worked as a whole in many ways. So It’s not like the movie was a total waste. In the end I did enjoy watching it. I won’t be running to pick up the physical media when it finally is released. I don’t think I’ll have to revisit this one at any point in the future. So I’m happy with it’s lack of presence on my shelves. That won’t bother me one bit. But I don’t feel like I wasted the time having sat down to watch it. And i’m glad this film made it’s way into my repertoire this Halloween season. So if you’ve been one of the lucky few who did not get swept up by Barbarian in 2022 and need to check it out, it is streaming on Hulu and I would still give it a recommendation. It at least allows you entrance into the conversation with those who have seen it now. And I live by the different strokes for different folks mentality and this one just wasn’t for me. But truthfully I’m not front and center in the horror world. I’m a tourist. I’m bonfide. But I don’t live in the land of the horror flick. So I’m ok if my review doesn’t hold as much water. I’m just happy to have checked it out and endured to the end. So until next time, I’ll catch you on the flip side.

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