Like the fiscally responsible person I am, I waited diligently (about a month and a half) for the horror film “Barbarian” (2022) to arrive on HBO Max. That night — it was a Wednesday, so I was actually sitting in The Phoenix’s office, clicking away at InDesign for hours on end — I put some headphones on, set up my laptop, and started the film. My one regret is that I couldn’t convince the rest of the office to let me turn the lights off.
“Barbarian” was one of my most anticipated horror films of the year. The trailer, released in June 2022, promised me the story of a young woman finding herself at a double-booked Airbnb (a personal fear of mine) and having nowhere to go. It’s the middle of the night — a rainy one, no less — and everything is set up for her to be murdered by the man who opened the door. The situation is tense; it feels much too convenient to be accidental. Our main character, Tess (Georgina Campell), crosses the threshold, and suddenly the soundtrack shifts into something more bluesy and upbeat. In that moment, I was taken aback. Wait, is this actually a rom-com? As the music screeches to a halt only thirty seconds later, we are shown the elements of a more classic horror film: a dark hallway we can’t see the end of, multiple people crawling on the ground, looking at something terrifying off screen, the haunted face of our main character. The only thing missing: who or what the killer actually is. The video ends with the title, another vague noun that in no way helps us narrow down who the murderer might be: “Barbarian.”
The casting for “Barbarian” especially intrigued me. Justin Long (“Tusk” and “Accepted”) appears for a brief flash in the trailer. I’ve seen him mostly in comedies, like the iconic “Dodgeball,” and one body-horror (“Tusk,” truly traumatizing, do NOT watch it if you want to sleep at night). However, his character’s appearance in “Barbarian” is completely unexplained. Was he found in the underground tunnels? Is he a prisoner or a perpetrator? Bill Skarsgård (the clown from “IT” and a Steve Buscemi look-alike) plays the man (Keith is his name) that appears to have booked the Airbnb alongside Tess. Skarsgård is hot but in a sincerely creepy way. His face simply screams murderer, so for the first half of the film, while Tess and Keith unwillingly spend a night under the same roof, the tension is unbearably high.
Last year I wrote a review of the slasher film “X” directed by Ti West, focusing on the dynamic between the protagonist/Final Girl (Mia Goth) and the slasher/killer (also Mia Goth). I initially found it exciting that a Final Girl killed another woman, especially because that woman was played by the same actress, just in a ton of makeup to make her look incredibly old. I thought this move was equalizing and a step forward in an intensely gendered genre like horror. “Women can be killers too,” I thought, “especially old women!” And then, like most things in life, I thought about it more.
The conclusion I came to is that horror, as it stands now, is undeniably misogynistic. A Final Girl survives to the end of the film, usually walking away from one last altercation with the killer as the sun rises around her. She may have escaped with her life, but ultimately this girl has been thoroughly traumatized and punished. She had to watch her friends be killed one by one, and then was asked to violently defend herself lest she be next. She was usually chosen to be the Final Girl for a multitude of reasons: she’s a virgin, she’s “not like other girls,” she’s more bookish and level-headed than sexual or overtly feminine. She’s safe. She is the first to notice that something is amiss.
“The Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male,” Carol Clover writes in her 1992 book “Men, Women, and Chainsaws.” “She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality.” At the end of a slasher film, after cheering for the killer at every turn, somehow a young man has to switch sides, to root for the Final Girl. How else is he to do it, then be convinced that she is not really a girl at all?
So then, what happens when our killer is also a woman?
I’m going to use the 2009 film “Jennifer’s Body” as my example, but this applies to almost every female killer in horror films. Simply put, female killers do not and cannot exist in the same way that male killers do. They are completely humanized. They get a backstory, like Jennifer (Megan Fox), when she is brutally stabbed to death by members of a band (she then has to come alive again to become the killer, a more common trope than you would think). When these women start their killing spree, they lack mystery, portrayed without things that convey such (like a mask), and they often use their sexuality to lure men to their death. It’s even implied that these women wouldn’t be able to murder others without their siren-like abilities. This expression of female sexuality is ultimately their downfall, and they face the same fate as their male-slasher-counterparts: killed by the Final Girl. The difference here is that their death is absolute; no room for thirteen more sequels. Female killers stay dead. This is their punishment for carrying out those murders, even if they had a pretty good reason to turn murderous in the first place. We (women) can truly never win.
“Barbarian” surprised me in a few ways. One, it was unclear going into the film what the killer even was, and it continues to be until Tess finds Keith in the tunnels beneath their Airbnb right before his brains are bashed in. The camera pans up and what is revealed is … somehow a woman? She is naked, so we can clearly see what’s going on, but she also veers towards being somewhat of a creature. Clearly, she is some kind of monster, but how did she get this way? If “Barbarian” is to follow the pattern, her backstory will be revealed, it will be traumatizing, and we will probably feel bad for her in some capacity before she is ultimately killed.
With great pacing, solid directing, lively performances on all parts, this exact pattern is revealed. A seriously disturbing backstory plays out, we start to understand this killer, and then it is decided that she still must be stopped (with a fatal punishment). “Barbarian” has a lot of things going for it. It’s an interesting premise, brings in a surprising amount of social commentary (Tess finds out the next morning that she is staying in an area of Detroit that is going to ruin, and Long’s character AJ is accused of sexual harassment while working on a television series and faces swift repercussions), and plays with your expectations. When Keith is killed instead of being the killer, I was thoroughly caught off guard. When there is a complete tonal shift from the underground tunnel to AJ driving in his convertible through California, I had to make sure I was still watching the same movie. There are a lot of moving parts that go into this film that make it really enjoyable, and lots of threads to follow before the culminating scene.
And yet, there is no deviation. Tess lies on her back, the last one alive after watching everyone else be brutally murdered. She was the perfect Final Girl: smart, capable, and wary of everything strange. She took some major convincing just to stay at the house with Keith. She begged Keith to not go back into the tunnels after she briefly explored them. She tells AJ what he must do when they are trapped together at the Woman’s mercy. It only makes sense for her to survive until the end. And as she lies there with the killer/woman/creature hovering above her, it looked for a moment like she might not complete the ritual. Tess held a gun to her head, and I saw hesitation in her eyes. But the movie concludes just as it’s supposed to, with Tess pulling the trigger.
It feels like horror films are really trying to subvert expectations right now, to break long-held gender and narrative rules; and while I think “Barbarian” has a wonderful element of freshness to it, I still found it slightly disappointing. Overall, a film that surprises just as much as it scares, and looks pretty good while doing it; and despite the tropes, I would recommend any horror movie fans reading this to give it a watch. My rating: a 4 out of 5 stars.