Tufts of unkempt grass sprout from cracks in the asphalt, a city slowly being swallowed by the earth. Abandoned streets scattered with rotting litter and skittering rats, empty homes gathering dust and slowly being eaten by termites and corroding mold. Slowly dissolving. Once paradise, now nearing apocalyptic in aesthetic, dilapidated and eerie. A shiver runs down the spine as the rot is spread into the atmosphere by the midnight rain. Amid the destruction, one house lies pristine, an unassuming safe haven among the crumbling neighborhood. The single tiny lot gives the appearance of a place far more abundant and lively, the last remnant of a once thriving middle class.
A perfectly designed backdrop for horror, the ever unspoken yet consistently unsettling feeling that persists when staying in an Airbnb, now dropped in the middle of a Detroit neighborhood slowly sinking into the ground beneath it. Double the tension by arriving at your last vestige of comfort only to find it’s been surreptitiously double booked, a lone woman confronted by a stranger, nowhere else to go. Functional although contrived, it works as a way to sow unease in the viewer, impossible to find comfort when you’re presented with a protagonist and the eminent and everlasting threat of masculinity, unsure of this man’s intentions despite his seemingly polite exterior. All expectations point to the ultimate demise of Tess (Georgina Campbell) by the hand of her unexpected housemate Keith (Bill Skarsgård), but those expectations are upended as a thick haze begins to emit from the musty basement, descending from the friendly veneer of the home’s top floor into a pit of rusted metal and floating dust.
The ride begins. Strap in as we descend from the apocalyptic cityscape of a dissolving Detroit and into depths that once seemed unimaginable. It’s an easy litmus test for horror, to poke and prod your audience to see what they’ll buy into. In its earliest moments, Zach Cregger’s Barbarian feels like an intentional prodding, presenting the unassuming protagonist with a series of narrative beats constructed as familiar horror moments, forcing her through a gauntlet of tropes as you beg and plead for her to make the sensible decision and just leave it alone. Ostensibly smart filmmaking to knowingly lead your audience through this, eventually it becomes such self-parody that it must be the point, to subvert expectations by playing with tropes – only the subversion never happens, it is just the film. The character is not playing into horror familiarity only to flip it all on its head, it simply is familiar horror, the character who despite all good sense will continue to opt for the path that almost certainly leads to death rather than take advantage of her numerous opportunities to escape.
There’s something to be said for Tess’s characterization, with the way the film attempts to be in conversation with gender norms and how those same norms and expectations play into our expectations for horror, but it’s little more than another idea the film presents to let you do all the work in exploring what that might mean or why. The film is not interested in exploring any of the things it presents, it merely presents horror-adjacent thematic suggestions and then forgets actually to make it mean anything. Tertiary character AJ (Justin Long) is constructed to be the antithesis to Tess – an opportunistic, sleazy scumbag who will do anything and everything in his own self-interest while Tess repeatedly puts herself in harm’s way for the sake of others, but the dichotomy between these characters is paper thin, surface level presentations of rigid personalities in order to pave the way for conflict through the film’s primary antagonist.
Detroit as a setting has potential, but as with the rest of the film, it is all idea and no execution. It’s a setting that presents itself as the frustrating stereotypical representation of Detroit as a crime-ridden, dangerous hellscape with little value, briefly flirting with the notion that the city was eroded by the destructive effects of Reaganomics only to fail completely in executing that thematic thread for the sake of the aesthetic promise of a dilapidated city. It is a film of potential, full of ideas, characters, monsters, and imagery that all belong in a great horror film – but it’s all ideas and nothing beyond. It never coalesces as a cohesive unit, it is just cherry-picked ideas of what horror should be without the understanding of what any of it means or how to actually make any of those things effective. Repeatedly it craves credit for what appears to be intelligent subversions of genre or clever uses of depth of field, focal length, and color, but when it finally cuts to black it seems it was all just a happy accident with little intent. The viral buzz in the periphery of the film is always a welcome sight for horror when genre fans find themselves animated with excitement about a particular new release. Still, the cries to go in blind and to see it with a packed theater feel unearned when you realize that it’s just a collection of things you’ve seen before, poorly put together without the understanding of what it all could mean.