Warning: This article discusses spoilers for the twisty new horror film “Barbarian.” If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our nonspoilery review here and more with the cast and director here.
That one-word title looms large over “Barbarian,” one of the most delightfully twisted horror films of 2022, in which a woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) stumbles into a nightmare when she finds her rental house already occupied by a stranger.
It’s a roller-coaster horror ride filled with suspense, scares, surprising laughs and some of the most delicious cinematic twists since last year’s “Malignant.”
What Tess discovers in the basement leads her into a labyrinth of unimaginable horrors — some closer than you might think. But who’s the real monster in filmmaker Zach Cregger’s Airbnb-of-horrors solo feature debut?
The nice guy and the meet-cute from hell
At first, signs point to said handsome stranger, Keith (“It” star Bill Skarsgard, also an executive producer, cannily playing off his Pennywise persona), who turns up the charm to get Tess to lower her guard and spend the night, else brave the storm outside. After a few nice gestures and good conversation, she ignores her instincts and says yes — even as Cregger’s script and Skarsgard’s delivery create a sizzling ambiguity around Keith’s motivations.
“My only note to Bill [Skarsgard] was, ‘Don’t lean into creepy. Lean into nice,’” Cregger said. “The nicer you are and the more disarming and friendly and appealing and nonthreatening that you behave, the more the audience is going to be convinced that you’re bad.”
Inspired in part by security expert Gavin de Becker’s book “The Gift of Fear,” “Barbarian” conjures a minefield of misogynist red flags for its heroine to navigate even before she crosses paths with shouting local Andre (Jaymes Butler), sitcom actor AJ (Justin Long) and a violent tunnel dweller known as the Mother (played expressively by Matthew Patrick Davis).
“[Keith] insists on bringing her luggage in, he makes her tea that she said she didn’t want, he says, ‘Pretty name,’” said Cregger. “These are not appropriate things to be doing in this situation. But he’s not aware of it, because he thinks he’s being nice.”
Is there something more sinister about Keith that Tess can’t see? Does it have anything to do with the doors that open and close in the middle of the night? The question hangs in the air as Tess makes a series of chilling discoveries in the basement, where a hidden door leads to a shadowy hallway and a secret room where very bad things have clearly occurred.
Beyond lies yet another door leading to the subterranean lair of the film’s apparent titular monster — the volatile Mother.
The mother under the stairs
“She was described as being 7 feet tall, naked, her face looking like it was the product of inbreeding, and having an impossible strength,” said Davis, the 6-foot-8-inch actor and musician behind the most surprising character in “Barbarian.” He was cast after a Zoom audition in which he stripped to his underwear and mimicked biting the head off a rat with a pickle he found in his fridge.
“I was very aware that this could be funny in the right way or the wrong way,” Davis said of his “Barbarian” performance. “When you’re in it, you have no idea how it’s going to be perceived. You’re aware that it’s a big swing and that it is bonkers and that, you know, you’re sitting there naked in Bulgaria with boobs taped to your chest. Are people going to buy this?”
Before filming began last summer, he received advice from legendary creature performer Doug Jones, including the fine line between physical expression and nonverbal overacting and another handy pro tip: Get prescription creature contacts made, else risk biting it while chasing your co-stars through those dark tunnels.
You’re sitting there naked in Bulgaria with boobs taped to your chest. Are people going to buy this?
— “Barbarian” star Matthew Patrick Davis
But Mother’s backstory is also the film’s most tragic. To inform her emotional state, Davis studied profiles of feral children and adults, diving deep into “a dark, disturbing YouTube rabbit hole” of research. As he sat in a chair for three hours getting into prosthetics and makeup each day, he watched the videos to prepare.
“It opened me up to the reality of the lives of people that have been deeply abused, raised in cages, raised like animals, kept in the dark and never spoken to in their formative years,” he said. “It allowed me to have empathy for this character. This is not just a scary character for scariness’ sake. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that she’s a victim.”
“I think that she’s the most empathetic character in the movie. She has never had a chance,” echoes Cregger, who also credits Davis with inspiring him to write certain gestures into Mother’s well-worn maternity VHS tape, which come full circle in the film’s bittersweet final scene. “And Matthew plays it with such tenderness.”
The sins of the father
After introducing Mother, the textbook horror movie monster we expect, Cregger challenges us throughout the film to reconsider who the actual barbarian of the story is. First seen in a Reagan-era flashback, Frank (Richard Brake, who starred recently in Amazon’s “Bingo Hell” and killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in “Batman Begins”) is her inverse — an average suburban family man on the outside and a true monster within.
Borrowing from serial killer films “Angst” (1983) and “Elephant” (both Gus Van Sant’s 2003 feature and the 1983 Alan Clark short of the same name), Cregger builds unease as the camera follows Frank to the store, where he stocks up on a suspicious grocery list, and as he stalks a young woman to her home.
It is revealed that he has kidnapped, raped and impregnated several women in the secret chambers beneath his house without repercussions for decades, and that Mother is the daughter of another of his victims, born into miserable captivity.
But it’s telling that it’s not Tess who learns Frank’s horrible truth in the film. Instead, it’s AJ (Long, playing deftly against type) whoruns from Mother to a section of the tunnels where even she dares not follow.
Enter the Hollywood actor
Introduced cruising carefree down Pacific Coast Highway singing along to Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi,” the narcissistic Hollywood star has recently stepped into his own version of a nightmare: an accusation of sexual assault that threatens to unravel his successful career.
“Because I’m an actor, and I know the world of actors very well, I was writing from an amalgam of people in my life,” Cregger said of conceiving the character of AJ. “I was trying to think of, ‘What’s this guy’s horror movie?’ Before he gets into the real horror movie — what’s the horror movie that he thinks he’s in? The collapse of your career and reputation due to your own bad behavior. This guy thinks his world is ending.”
AJ, who at first appears to be a ridiculous comedic figure, is revealed to be arguably the scariest character in the film. In Detroit to liquidate his rental home to cover his impending legal fees, he is the embodiment of male privilege and casual misogyny, his puffed-up bravado masking an inherent cowardice and refusal to take accountability for his actions. (Although not explicitly addressed in the film, Cregger says he deliberately wrote the men of “Barbarian” to be white males.)
When AJ discovers the ailing Frank and judges him by his brutal crimes, the audience is invited to wonder: Just how different is he from the monster staring back at him?
Frank, at least, seems to know he can’t escape what he’s done. AJ’s brief moment of clarity reverts to gaslighting self-preservation as he commits one final heinous act, attempting to hide his true nature behind a well-practiced nice guy veneer — a quality Long borrowed from watching men deliver empty apologies on “The Bachelorette.”
“There’s a glimmer of accountability,” said Long, “and I just love that Zach refuses to take the conventional way out.”
As for Tess, it’s her innate sense of empathy — the one that repeatedly sends her toward danger to help others, at her own peril — that helps her understand Mother before she sets them both free. “She’s someone that is used to traumatic situations and is able to understand how to survive in this situation,” said Campbell. “By the end of the film, I feel like she gets her own agency and is able to get out of the pattern she found herself in again and again and again.”