Barbarian ★★★★

Ridley's Informal Halloween Horror Movie Marathon 2022: Things Might Get Weird!, Film 24 of ?

The "old dark house" gets an update to the 21st century with a concept that proves to be quite intriguing on a glance: how much do you really know where you're staying at when it's not your own home? Here, the AirBnB element manages to grab you immediately as even past the setup of our heroine finding out the place she's renting out turns out to be double booked, one does wonder with a setup like this just how slightly more sinister it seems when you have to pay for the dubious privilege of surviving a literal house of horrors, especially in leaner times. That playing in the back of the mind pairs eerily well the foregrounded relationship between Tess and Keith. Initially one of shock and anger at the circumstances that brought them together, an icebreaker of an overnight does well to ease the tensions as Tess opens up to him and Keith responds in kind by letting her have her space. It's an uneasy tension with many reasons for why Tess is as leery as she is, compounded by some slightly paranoid behavior on her part that colors Keith's perception of her, and throughout the first 45 minutes of the movie, it's maintained with a genuinely expert hand in having a lot of little things add up over time to create a lot of genuine terror before anything too overtly scary or violent does happen, as one starts to see there being some kind of invisible hand at play that makes the whole situation see off (best exemplified with a rather striking shot of the morning after the two meet and Tess gets to see just what kind of neighborhood that she's in for the first time). Though certainly not without its strategically placed moments of humor to take some of the edge off, the film very capably mines all that it can from the setup until things finally come to a head and the full scope of all the strange happenings emerges from the darkness at long last.

It's important to mention that it is an update on the "old dark house" formula right off because, for as genuinely nerve-wracking and disturbing as the movie starts out as, it reveals it hasn't come close to revealing its entire hand yet, and one that does take things into more absurd yet thematically interesting direction than you could ever guessed it would. Zach Cregger may not be a household name yet, but folks who do recognize it certainly are aware of what's been his biggest claim to fame up until now as a member of the beloved Whitest Kids U' Know comedy collective, and the direction the film winds up going in genuinely feels like a more ambitious and starker workshop for smaller ideas for bits that couldn't justify their own segments on that show, but get worked into the story here in a way that feels surprisingly natural and adds to a real feeling of unpredictability that constantly has you on your toes when the humor does get more overt. The direction gets a hell of a lot more topical as a result, creating a very strange but welcome vibe as you split your time laughing your ass off at some amazing jokes and gags along the way, while also finding time in between to have your jaw drop when certain implications become outright stated that adds a lot the film in terms of creep factor, especially as it begins to dawn on you that there's a lot more relevance to why it goes the direction it does that makes for a more simpatico story than it initially seems after the swerve. Silly? Absolutely, but there is a surprising amount of meat to go around that's not limited to the brief flashes of ultra-violence we see occasionally.

Cregger clearly has a genuine appreciation for the genre, as well, as he manages to make the camera as much of a participant in maintaining the terror as the story or the fundamental images themselves for a rather vivid presentation that figuratively and literally thinks on its feet as the situation deteriorates for our heroes. I think this is where some of the best lessons come in from his work on Whitest Kids U' Know, which despite the silliness could get into some very dark and shocking territory to somehow make the laughter hurt just a little harder than the physical aspect as you get caught up in the debate your mind has for finding something so horrible so damn funny at times, and that on-the-fly ingenuity pays off greatly in the final act that mixes in some great spoofing with genuinely beyond-the-pale material that probably needed a little touch of the absurd to not turn the film into outright misery. And it is certainly weird enough throughout with all the fussy touches he puts into some the scenes (never before has tape measure been so good at doing exactly what it was intended to do while also nailing the film's tricky balance of humor and horror) to leave a big impression, even as one may not be as on board with not giving folks a more straightforward horror film.

It is definitely understandable that folks don't appreciate the seemingly misleading bill of goods they were sold on, and if Cregger wants to play it straight on another film, he undeniably gets what makes a strong horror film without needing to have it be outright humorous as it gets here, but I for one think it was for the best that the film does go in the direction here as there's a lot more to chew on as a result of how scenes have you digging just a little bit deeper to find the more disturbing margins as a result. Taken on a surface level, it's a highly entertaining work that's got plenty for both thrill-seekers and folks looking for a fun time to be satisfying, while also not needing a lot of detective work to find there's even more underneath to see a much slyer work with some real bite in it that lingers well past the laughter subsides. I wouldn't call it subtle, necessarily, but having it speak for itself on such topics without being fussy about how and where they're communicated makes for an engrossing bit of subtext that gives it a strong pull for anyone so inclined to engage with it further. The warm reception of the film across the board seems to suggest that I'm not going crazy on thinking such thoughts, though I'm definitely going to be a little more conscious about just how doors might close by themselves and maybe not going to places in basements where I clearly don't belong.

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