When Universal Pictures released Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho into cinemas in 1960, the notoriously theatrical auteur required an addendum from theater owners: they would close the box office to anyone who showed up after the opening credits began. For the first time ever, a director would require audiences to watch his movie from the beginning. Before the release of Hitch’s horror masterpiece, it was a common habit for audiences to show up late or even in the middle of a movie, buying a ticket and watching the story out of order between multiple showings.
However, for a film as twisty as Psycho—wherein the lead character dies in a shower after the 47-minute mark—Hitchcock didn’t want anyone to miss the sheer shock of his chiller’s narrative. It changed the way American audiences went to the movies forever.
All of which is an extended way of saying this: Do not come into the middle of Zach Cregger’s Barbarian, the most shocking horror movie of the year… and now, one you can watch from the comfort of your own home on HBO Max.
The film, which is Cregger’s first spookfest after working as an actor, writer, and director in comedy, features a genuinely innovative and clever narrative that benefits from the less you know. If you need the bare bone-basics of the setup, it is that a woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives late one night to her AirBnB on the outskirts of Detroit. She has an important job interview the next morning, and at the witching hour of midnight—while rain pours in sheets outside—it’s absolutely mortifying to learn that the house she rented is already occupied by a fellow short-term renter named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). Or at least that’s what Keith claims, as he smiles awkwardly over the embarrassing situation.
Keith then offers Tess shelter from the storm; she can come inside while figuring out where she’ll stay instead… or she could even possibly spend the night. Despite her hesitation, she enters the house.
This was about all the original trailer for Barbarian showed of its storyline, and we advise avoiding the more recent marketing that 20th Century Studios has put out ahead of the movie’s arrival on HBO Max and VOD/digital download. The fact is that Disney, which owns 20th Century, inherited the project from the Disney-Fox merger and intended to release Barbarian straight to streaming. However, the final film wound up being so compelling, and performed so absurdly well at test screenings, that Disney pivoted to a theatrical release.
The movie began building strong word of mouth at San Diego Comic-Con last July and despite being released at the beginning of September, it continued to play exceedingly well with audiences all the way into streaming release this week—earning $42 million off a $4 million budget.
That’s because Cregger has crafted one of the most entertaining horror movies of the last few years. Structurally, the film features twists and switchbacks, but it also cannily resembles something of a standup comedy set, with the narrative going down surprising detours (and even cul-de-sacs) while exploring an overarching theme… only this is primarily about why people should (or shouldn’t) trust and help others, even in nightmarish circumstances.
Much of this is buoyed by the film’s performances, particularly Campbell whose character is almost a litmus test for audiences. She is immediately suspicious of Keith and other developments in her strange home-sharing situation, yet she often makes what can be construed as morally right choices. In typical horror movies, such character interactions might be deemed as contrived, but in Barbarian, audiences are asked to view themselves as Tess, and to debate what is actually the right thing to do given what we know and what she doesn’t?
Also make no mistake that this is not intended to be mistaken as “elevated horror” (whatever that means). Barbarian is a thrilling, knotty, and even at times campy yarn that wishes to keep audiences always engrossed and incredibly anxious, be it due to unexpectedly dark humor or some truly horrifying images and ideas.
We really do not want to say more, except this: If you have not seen Barbarian yet, give yourself this trick and treat between now and Halloween.