The notoriously theatrical director demanded an amendment from theatre owners when Universal Pictures launched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho into theatres in 1960: they would close the box office to anyone who showed up beyond the opening credits. For the first time ever, a director would insist that viewers start from the beginning of his film. It was normal practice for moviegoers to arrive late or even in the midst of a film, buy a ticket, and watch the plot out of order across different showings before the debut of Hitch’s horror classic.
However, for a film as unpredictable as Psycho, where the main character passes away in the shower after 47 minutes Hitchcock didn’t want anyone to miss the narrative’s stark shock. It permanently altered how American moviegoers experienced cinema.
All of this is a long way of saying don’t enter Zach Cregger’s Barbarian, the year’s most stunning horror film, which you can now watch from the comfort of your home on HBO Max.
The movie, which is Cregger’s first spookfest after acting, writing, and directing comedies, has a genuinely original and ingenious plot that benefits from the fact that you don’t know much about it. The setup, if you need it, is that a woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) shows up unexpectedly late one night at her AirBnB outside of Detroit. She has a crucial job interview the next morning, so finding out at the witching hour of midnight that the house she rented is already occupied by a fellow short-term renter named Keith is simply humiliating (Bill Skarsg rd). Or at least that’s what Keith says, grinning sheepishly as he contemplates the humiliating circumstance.
Then, Keith offers Tess a place to stay while she decides where to stay in place of coming inside, or she could even stay the night. She hesitates before going inside the home.
We advise avoiding the more recent marketing that 20th Century Studios has released ahead of the movie’s premiere on HBO Max and VOD/digital download because this was pretty much all the first trailer for “Barbarians” revealed about its plot. In actuality, Disney, the owner of 20th Century, acquired the property from the Disney-Fox merger with the intention of immediately streaming Barbarian. Disney decided to release the final movie in theatres, but it ended up being so captivating and performing so improbably well in test screenings.
Even though it was launched at the beginning of September, the film continued to play incredibly well with audiences all the way up to its streaming release last week, making $42 million off a $4 million budget. The movie started gaining strong word of mouth at San Diego Comic-Con last July.
That’s because Cregger has created one of the best horror films in recent memory. The plot takes unexpected turns and switchbacks while exploring an overarching theme, but this is mostly about why people should (or shouldn’t) trust and help others, even in terrifying situations. The structure of the movie includes twists and switchbacks. However, it also cannily resembles something of a stand-up comedy set.
A large part of this is encouraged by the performances throughout the movie, especially Campbell, whose character is virtually a litmus test for viewers. She is immediately wary of Keith and other developments in her odd home-sharing arrangement, yet she frequently takes actions that could be viewed as morally correct. Such character exchanges can be seen as forced in traditional horror films, but in Barbarian, viewers are challenged to put themselves in Tess’ shoes and consider what is genuinely the right course of action given what we know and what she doesn’t?
Please note that this is not meant to be viewed as a higher kind of horror (whatever that means). Barbarians is a gripping, tangled, and occasionally even campy tale that aims to keep viewers constantly fascinated and extremely uneasy, whether it’s through unexpectedly dark humor or some genuinely terrible sights and concepts. If you haven’t watched The Barbarian yet, treat yourself to it before Halloween. We really don’t want to say anything else.