A Few More Things I Like About Barbarian

Still thinking about a horror movie that probably wasn’t intended to be quite as thoughtful as I made it sound. Minor spoilers.

An alternate official movie poster for Barbarian, showing a piece of carry-on luggage with a trapped person's hand coming out of a grate in the center.

Very cool alternate official movie poster for Barbarian from Bloody Disgusting

When I wrote about the movie Barbarian, I may have been so eager to avoid spoilers and to compare it to my expectations that I misrepresented what the movie’s actually like. I’m still going to avoid spoiling anything specific in the movie, but I will be talking more about its tone and what to expect, so if you’re planning to see it, I really recommend avoiding this and going in cold.

I made it sound like the movie’s not very scary (it is, and there are at least two scenes of extremely graphic violence), and that it’s not particularly funny (it is, and there’s a pretty long1No pun intended sequence that’s straight-up hilarious).

The comedy’s easier to explain, since it was just a case of my hearing the buzz around the movie and expecting it to work like Malignant or Orphan: First Kill: where it goes over-the-top with its horror elements to the point of highlighting how absurd it all is. Instead of that, Barbarian‘s funniest moments are all character-based. They present a character with all the familiar components of a horror movie setup, and then show them behaving exactly like those characters would.

It’s really clever, for a couple of reasons: first is that it doesn’t just rely on absurdity that evaporates as soon as the novelty wears off. There’s a satirical edge to all of it. The theme of selfishness vs self-interest, and the things that we owe to each other as people, comes through loud and clear even though the movie isn’t banging us over the head with its message. (I don’t know that I’d call it subtle, but it does expertly avoid having any of the characters explicitly summing up the idea in dialogue).

The other reason it’s so clever is because the comedy is built almost entirely on the last hour or so of the movie being scary and suspenseful as hell. Taking advantage of expectations, showing someone opening one increasingly scary door after the next all while the audience is screaming at them not to — that’s such a well-known element of horror movies that even the parodies and meta-commentary deconstruction of it is decades old at this point. Barbarian is so good at playing on this suspense that it doesn’t just have it both ways, it has it three ways: it’s genuinely scary, it builds to an extended comedic payoff, and then it uses it to make a point.

“Don’t go into the scary basement!” seems universal enough: it’s pretty good advice for anybody to follow, even if you’re not aware you’re in a horror movie. But Barbarian quietly emphasizes the idea that it’s not actually that universal. Some people have to be constantly on the lookout for potential horrors everywhere, while others can be fearless because they’ve lived their whole lives without facing any consequences for their actions.

The comedic payoff only works as well as it does because the movie is so good at building suspense, which goes back to my reaction that it “wasn’t very scary.” That sounds like a knock on the movie, but it’s actually an acknowledgement of how adept it is at pumping the suspense for all it’s worth, while sparing the horror to be doled out at just the right time and in just the right amount. The more I think back on Barbarian, the more I appreciate how good it is at showing only what it needs to show, leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination.

The movie’s trailer was so good at implying a third act which would be over-the-top horror and ultra-violence. Which, of course, was the entire point: the dread of what you might see is so much more powerful than the movie showing it to you in lurid, extended detail.2So much of that horror is so effectively suggested by a bloody handprint on a wall, and a set of VHS tapes with short, suggestive labels. I think I’ve been steeling myself for haunted-house season, which is the opposite, relying on cheap thrills and leaving absolutely none of the horror implicit. Barbarian, on the other hand, is remarkable for its restraint.

Thinking about the ways Barbarian builds suspense and delivers horror, I was reminded again of my whole argument about the way The Walking Dead series of games worked. I keep insisting that the branching narrative is the least interesting aspect of those games, even though that’s where all the focus was. The game’s own marketing promised “the game tailors itself to the choices you make,” and several players complained that the choices were often “meaningless,” since the same thing happened no matter what choice you made. But that puts all the focus on the outcome instead of the choice itself. I think that the thing the series did so remarkably well was set up situations in which the horror was in having to make the choice, when there are no good outcomes.

I was reminded of all that while reading a review of Barbarian, which suggested that there were several moments that didn’t make real-world sense, but were dictated by the plot and premise of a horror movie to happen. I disagree. I think that it’s full of moments that make it stronger than the over-the-top wacky horror movie than I’d expected. We get to see one character doing the “right” things that a person in a horror movie should be doing, and it’s clear that they’re awful and motivated purely by self-interest. And we see another character repeatedly choosing to do the “wrong” thing for a person in a horror movie, but she does it because it’s the right thing to do.

One other unrelated thing I really like about Barbarian: the music. There’s a fantastic bit at the very beginning that suggests the horrors of being outside in the neighborhood, versus the safety of the car. And throughout the rest, there are several sequences that vividly reminded me of the fantastic soundtrack to Suspiria — familiar enough to evoke a memory of it, without being a direct reference.

So ultimately, I think I did Barbarian a disservice by emphasizing the satire and suspense, making it sound like some bland, high-minded thought experiment. It is pretty scary and often very funny. I was just surprised by its having something to say on top of the horror.

  • 1
    No pun intended
  • 2
    So much of that horror is so effectively suggested by a bloody handprint on a wall, and a set of VHS tapes with short, suggestive labels.