Conceptually, I'm into a lot of this—a bait and switch structure wherein a relatively patient exercise in mounting tension veers suddenly into monster movie territory; a serial killer backstory starring Richard Brake (he's great, as always); a descent into darkness and grotesquerie. And whether or not Zach Cregger is aware of it, Barbarian is hugely indebted to both Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven; but, unfortunately, the debts are largely superficial, and the film fails to recognize the more nuanced and transgressive qualities that make those auteurs' films work so well.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre employs selective omission of onscreen violence (and, relatedly, selective imagistic emphases), but it never pulls its punches the way Barbarian consistently does; Hooper's occasionally suggestive approach to brutality is not a cop-out, it's a finely tuned strategy, and he never skimps on tonal intensity and narrative conviction. He takes his craft and genre seriously, even when he approaches it with a twisted grin.

Similarly, there's an unblinking quality in Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs, and, for that matter, Hooper's Mortuary and Toolbox Murders—all films that accomplish Barbarian's tonal and allegorical goals much more successfully. When Craven and Hooper reveal their subterranean humans-turned-monsters (rendered abominable by brutal social structures), they're not smirking. Further, their social commentary is nuanced, complex, and intelligently integrated into their narratives.

And speaking of smirking (and Craven): Scream did exciting things with postmodern irony and metanarrative in 1996. Now, over a quarter of a century later, these rehashed wink-wink-nudge-nudge qualities are beyond tired; they're in a state of advanced decomposition. Besides, Scream's interior deconstruction did not come at the expense of genuine horror and confrontation. Not to mention, Kevin Williamson's inventive script was handled by a highly intelligent director who had inhabited (and interrogated) the genre for over two decades by that point.

All the good stuff in this film is drowned by too much self-satisfied flaunting (and, unfortunately, it's just not smart enough to earn that self-satisfaction). The "ironic" tools here are used for deflection, not enrichment: to avoid sitting too long in discomfort or actually depicting the violence it portends, it plays brutality for laughs and cuts to "comically" contrasting scenes accompanied by sarcastic needle drops (this happens more than once).

I'm also very tired of blatant editorializing in mainstream Hollywood movies (and no, it doesn't matter whether I'm in political alignment with said editorializing; it's patronizing and obnoxious regardless of the political angle, and this is not what I want from art, ever). The film so forcefully wants us to know that it's on the ball with current hashtag politics, and again, it loses narrative and tonal credibility as a consequence. Imagine, for example, how much more interesting it would be to approach Long's character with some level of realism rather than portraying him as a cartoonishly villainous caricature.

I want horror films that know and respect their genre, that pull us into their affective spaces with authenticity. Barbarian has got some of the surface qualities I dig, but none of the soul.

Sidenote: both this and X bring sexual taboo/fetishism to bear on their depictions of garishly monstrous elderly bodies, which struck me as interesting. Somebody who has the time might want to write an essay on this curiously specific recurrence in 2022's mainstream American horror releases.

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