SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not seen “Barbarian.”
“Barbarian” is one of the year’s most-discussed horror films, largely because of some wild twists that were not spoiled in the trailers. That said, many of the movie’s biggest moments merit discussion beyond screams of “WTF!,” and director Zach Cregger broke them down for Variety.
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The movie’s first act is its most conventional, as Tess (Georgina Campbell) accidentally double-books an Airbnb for the same period of time as charming stranger Keith (Bill Skarsgård). She can’t find other lodging in this rough part of Detroit… should she stay the night? From there, Tess’ fear spirals as she creeps down into the hidden underground tunnels under the house, and runs into mutant woman known as The Mother, who savagely kills Keith right in front of her. At the movie’s most tense moment, there’s a smash cut to… a newly-introduced Justin Long, driving a convertible down a sunny California highway, singing without a care in the world.
It’s the most jarring cut of the year, but the film’s endgame builds quickly from there: Director AJ (Long, amazingly cast against type) is about to be snapped into new reality, hitting the front page of the entertainment trades after he’s accused of raping an actress. As his income rapidly dwindles, he has to quickly liquidate assets, including a rental he owns in — you guessed it — Detroit. Then it’s AJ headed down into the tunnels and scheming an escape plan with Tess from their underground captors. While audiences might be left with whiplash during their first viewing, Cregger explained he views Tess and AJ as mirroring each other.
“It’s two sides of the same coin,” Cregger tells Variety. “The beginning of the movie is a woman desperately trying to assess threat and trying to determine if she’s with a predator or not. I read this book, ‘The Gift of Fear,’ that informed all of this and woke me up to the idea that men and women coexist in this common space, but we share alien psychic landscapes. Men do not have to be assessing threat like women do.”
He continued: “So that was the story of the first chunk, and then the second chunk is the polar opposite. It’s a man who is causing all of this damage and he’s oblivious to it. He’s not assessing anything about himself. And so they are spiritual twins — they’re just the inverse of each other. And they have to both pass through the same gauntlet. AJ fails the test, and Tess passes the test. It’s really twins going through the same crux.”
While writing “Barbarian,” both The Mother and AJ — and the subsequent twists — were not initially planned out.
“I didn’t know that the twist and [The Mother] character existed until the moment they appeared,” he said. “And when [The Mother] appeared and they ended that chapter, I thought, ‘It’s over. There’s no movie here. It’s a 40-minute fun short and that’s not anything, so I’m done.’ And then I just didn’t want to leave it alone. I got so much pleasure out of writing it and I was like, ‘I have to come back…how can I come back into this world from the opposite direction?’ And that’s where everything kicked back off for me. It wasn’t a calculation, it was just me wanting to keep it going somehow, and it was a joyful process.”
Ironically, the structure and twists of the movie, which have already captivated horror fans on social media and Reddit, almost kept the production from being greenlit.
“It took me a year and a half to get anyone interested,” Cregger said. “Nobody wanted to make this movie. I sent it to everyone I knew, and I just had a universal, ‘It’s too weird.’ Everybody wanted to change the structure: ‘You can’t introduce a main character on page 50’ and all these things. Everything that everyone didn’t like was everything that I thought made it so special, so it was a real slog.”
Although Cregger is interested in developing more horror movies, he shows a keen restraint when it comes to “Barbarian” sequel talk, especially in the wake of the film’s gruesome finale.
“There won’t be any ‘Barbarian 2,'” he said. “What would it be? I always joke when people ask me, ‘Yeah, [The Mother] has to go get her drivers license and GED and try to reintegrate into society. I’d watch that movie, but I wouldn’t make it.”
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