Barbarian is Riddled with Horror Clichés

January 27, 2023

Written by Via Laurene

Via Laurene is a freelance writer and horror enthusiast. She loves horror in all types of media, be it film, books, comics, or gaming. Dark fantasy films of the 80s and 90s were her gateway into the genre. As a kid, she'd walk down the horror movie aisle of her local video store and make up stories based on the horror covers. She also writes horror fiction and poetry. Her debut poetry chapbook, "Leaving the Skin," was published in 2018. Her favorite horror film is The Howling (1981).

It’s when it chooses to subvert or lean into those clichés that makes it a fresh, fantastic horror film.

Barbarian is about two travelers who both get booked in the same Air B&B by mistake and discover the house has something darker and more terrifying hidden inside. It’s the first horror film directed and written by Zach Cregger(The Whitest Kids You Know(2007-11)) and stars Georgiana Campbell(Black Mirror (2017)), Bill Skarsgård(IT (2017)), and Justin Long(Tusk (2019)).   


💀SPOILERS! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.💀


We start following Tess(Campbell) as she pulls up to the Air B&B house in the pouring rain, confused why her key isn’t in the lockbox. Enter Keith(Skarsgård), who’s already staying there and booked the same house on another website. 


If I didn’t already know this was a horror movie, I could have maybe passed this off as a super sketchy “meet-cute.” 



Woman Stays in Strange Place with Stranger Cliché


  Sure, Keith makes a point that it’s late, dark and the neighborhood seems sketchy. He’s trying to consider the fears of the situation from her perspective by offering her the bedroom with the lock on the door, and waits to open a wine bottle in front of her so she knows he’s not drugging her. Tess initially doesn’t want to stay because she knows that’s a risky situation. They both attempt to call the contact of their bookings with no answer, Tess tries to book a hotel, but there’s apparently a convention in town and no place has a room available. Only after exhausting her other options does Tess decide to stay. Even after this decision, she plays it cautious and smart by taking a photo of Keith’s ID. The film needs to fall into this cliché in the beginning to make you aware of horror clichés in order to delight you with how it subverts them later on.


“Don’t go down there!”



The oldest cliché in the horror handbook. We actually get to watch this cliché from three different character perspectives. First, when looking for toilet paper, Tess accidentally gets locked in the basement, which leads her to finding the secret room. Upon opening, Tess looks down the hall and her first response is the picture above, making the crowd go wild after finally having their pleas at the screen listened to. Tess is a smart character, even if she ends up giving in to the clichés at times. When curiosity sets in, she uses a mirror to shine light from the lamp into the corridor to try to see what’s down there, then keeps the light going when she ventures in just enough to find the secret torture room, where she quickly runs out. This could have been a very short horror movie had the plot followed Tess’ lead to leave the house as soon as she found the room because Tess knows what’s up when it comes to “a bed and a bucket” in a creepy, hidden room. Oh yeah, and there was a red handprint on the wall and a camera set up, facing the bed. Mmm hmm, totally normal, Keith.


Then, Keith ventures in because he “hasn’t seen it himself.” He apologizes to Tess for not believing her outright and says she doesn’t have to come with him down there again(which she wasn’t going to), but conveniently leaves out the sketchiest parts of what she saw in repeating what she said back. He discounts her info because she’s showing emotional fear right after finding it too. If he’d trusted her, he would have left immediately with her and still been alive. The only reason Tess ends up going against her better judgment is because she doesn’t want Keith to get hurt after he ignores the warning signs of danger. Finally, we have AJ’s descent, who upon reaching the same torture room, gazes in disbelief at the opportunity to raise the asking price of the house by adding more square feet to it. He continues to go deeper into the tunnels without a care, past a room filled with metal cages, measuring tape zipping behind him, until he’s captured by our movie’s monster.


AJ’s reaction to finding the hidden room was one of my favorite gags.


  Cregger got the idea for the film from reading The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker, which included a section on women trusting their gut instincts to recognize red flags and warning signs that could lead to violence in interactions with others. This message runs throughout the film, with this cliché giving us several different methods at approaching it, all of which are unconventional. However, it does set the fates in store for each character based on their reaction.


Casting Clichés


  The casting itself tricks you into thinking you know what’s going to happen. Bill Skarsgård is perfectly cast as the leading man, Keith, because horror fans will not trust him the second his head pops out the front door. When your career is full of characters like Roman Godfrey, Pennywise, The Kid, and upcoming Nosferatu, you start to notice a pattern.



The face of innocence, trust, and no backlog of villainous acting roles.


       No matter what he does or how chivalrous he acts, we are just waiting for him to reveal himself as the movie’s villain. His acting reputation is so strong that even these extra lengths he goes to to make Tess feel safer are making alarm bells go off in our heads, as if him actually being a decent human being for once is definitive proof that he’s overcompensating for the evil about to erupt. Come on, Keith! Throw her down the stairs, bludgeon her in the back of the head with your charm, eat her leg off or something! After Tess discovers the hidden room in the basement, we know Keith is thinking, “Aww man, I could have slept in here instead of the sofa?” Even when he gets trapped in the underground tunnel system and later Tess finds him disheveled, terrified, and talking about something down there, we still think he’s part of it! Every piece of this film knows that we cannot rest until his head is bashed repeatedly into a wall in direct view by the tunnel creature. Guess Keith wasn’t the leading man after all.  


And even then I thought he might come back!   


Wow, it may take a minute for me to recover from the violence and shock of what just oh nope now we’re watching a bright, sunny day over a beautiful ocean and Justin Long is cruising in a fancy car and singing “Riki Tiki Tavi” by Donovan. Did someone switch the film reels on us? Do they still use film reels?   Cregger knew how to use his cast to pull the film’s punches. While Justin Long may not be a scream king, he’s had his share of horror acting roles. Besides the most recent Tusk, he was also in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2004) and Jeepers Creepers (2001). If having your mangled body stuffed inside a fleshy walrus suit isn’t enough to pay your horror dues, I don’t want to know what you have to do. Being better known from comedies, where he often plays nerdy, wimpy, or good guys, Cregger gives Long the opportunity to be his worst self and have a blast with it. 



If you say one more thing about dodgeball, I will kill you myself.


  While driving in L.A., his character, AJ, gets a phone call from his agent(he’s an actor) who tells him his female co-star has come forward with rape allegations against him, so his new show with her is cancelled. AJ swears he didn’t do it and continues to do this with everyone he encounters until he realizes he’s in financial trouble and has to assess a property he owns. Guess what property it is!    In Detroit, he meets up at a bar with his friend, Doug, who asks him about the allegations, much to AJ’s chagrin, who thought at least his own friend wouldn’t stress him about it. Everett tells him he believes him, but just needs to hear it from him before he drops it. So AJ retells the story about his co-star who said, “no,” to his advances and “she just took some convincing is all,” but that he’s a “persistent dude.” It’s here that we definitively know AJ is not a good guy.   


After escaping the house with Tess and learning about Frank’s history with the house, AJ does have a self-reflective moment.   


Then, shortly after, he abandons Tess when The Mother shows up, doesn’t help her when she falls after already being injured, throws Tess off a tower to save himself and says, “mother, go fetch!” He even has the audacity to try to convince her he “didn’t even let go, you started to slip. There’s nothing I could do” and that he was saving her now that he knew she was still alive. The movie doesn’t have AJ flat-out declare he’s similar to Frank, but through its storytelling it’s not hard to see the parallels created between them.  



Audiences love a character redemption arc.


  The movie’s casting is meta in the way it relies on the viewer’s previous knowledge of the actors in the horror genre and their general typecasting. We also get a fun cameo from the writer/director himself as Everett, AJ’s (previous) wealth manager. Even the marketing for one of Barbarian’s trailers is set up to mess with our expectations for the film. Advertised as “Justin Long’s New Movie,” “from the producer of The Lego Movie,” “the studio that brought you Alvin & the Chipmunks,” and the director nodding to his days on The Whitest Kids U’Know, it’s hilarious how upbeat it is until the turn to horror, which leads us to think Long will be the movie’s hero/victim. The description from 20th Century Fox’s YouTube channel reads, “when you hit some speed bumps on the road of life, sometimes all you need is a change of scenery. This fall, 20th Century Studios & New Regency invite you to the most emotional movie in years. See Justin Long in the crowd pleasing phenomenon that has hearts a flutter.” They knew exactly what they were doing with this one, folks. Barbarian is a horror film made for already established horror fans and it rewards them.


Bad Neighborhood Cliché


  This movie does its darndest to comment on how bad everyone thinks the neighborhood is. We have Keith’s previous suspicions, Tess observing the shambled houses along the street in daylight the morning after she arrives, the woman from Tess’ interview giving a stern warning not to stay in that area, and the homeless man she narrowly escapes running after her and banging on the door when she comes back to the house after the interview. When Tess escapes the house and finds the cops, they right her off as a crazy, drug addict because of the neighborhood she is in, implying that’s the only type of people who live in those areas. When they do go check out the exterior of the house, they also do the same thing Keith did, discrediting her story because they see her as a hysterical woman…because she looks distressed and just escaped being a prisoner in a dungeon under the house.



The film also plays with set color design to mess with your perspective. Whenever we see the house and Detroit neighborhood in current times, it’s mostly at night. In the daylight, the houses are shown disheveled, boarded up, graffitied, and look like no one lives there or if they do, they aren’t doing well. Their Air B&B is the nicest house on the street. When we’re uprooted from our current program for the third time, the movie is suddenly in the 1980s. It sure gives off some Edward Scissorhands, Pleasantville, Stepford vibes with its aesthetic though. The setting completely changes to sunny, blue skies and pastel-painted houses, one of which looks very familiar. We tag along with Frank(Richard Blake (Mandy (2018)) from the house to the store to get supplies for a homebirth. Everything seems pretty “day in the life” and boring compared to what we just watched until we realize Frank is following a woman home without her knowledge.



Discovering the house holds the real danger, not the neighborhood isn’t that unexpected. The build-up of the neighborhood throughout the movie so far is turned upside down in a few, quick, scenes of Frank unlocking a women’s bathroom window and the sound of screaming from his basement. The red herrings of assumed poverty and “Regan’s economy” heard on Frank’s radio, as well as clues sprayed in graffiti that reveal what neighbor Doug refers to as why the, “neighborhood’s going to Hell.” It’s Frank. The movie’s “monster” is created from Frank’s kidnapping, abusing, and later incestuous acts against women. We learn the homeless man chasing Tess earlier on is really trying to warn her away from the house. He tells them the monster, referred to as The Mother, escapes and roams the neighborhood at night, which has led to the damage we see on the modern day street.   While “The Mother” does kill people and isn’t exactly good, the true barbarians of the film are shown to be Frank, the man who invaded the bodies and homes of the women he kidnapped and also AJ “The Convincer,” who does the same as Frank and invades The Mother’s home. He gets his come-uppance by Mother after she saves Tess’s fall though. Keith ends up being a barbarian as well, although not intentionally or the film’s villain, by invading Tess’ sense of safety in the home that should have just been hers only.  


The environment Mother was raised in and what Frank did to her is all The Mother has ever known. Her brain couldn’t develop in a healthy environment or reach the mental state of adulthood. Her only entertainment was a VHS about breastfeeding and mothering a baby, so finding babies to care for and keep safe became her life’s purpose. She considered Tess her baby, so she wouldn’t hurt her, and in the end there’s even a tender moment before Tess has to kill her, where Mother seems to understand. The monster needs to be vanquished, but it’s also a mercy killing in a way. The Mother doesn’t have to be subjected to her horror story anymore. Tess has tried to be cautious and smart throughout the movie(whether it worked out for her or not) because she’s highly aware of what happens to women in horror scenarios all the time. She’s tried to learn from them and knows that she could have just as easily been The Mother.   


The subversions of these horror genre cliches and viewers expectations come together to create a movie that has terrors in many forms, dark laughs, and emotion. Barbarian doesn’t hit you over the head(sorry Keith) with its commentary or dumb itself down for the audience. When things happen, characters aren’t given throwaway lines to tell us point blank what we’re supposed to be thinking. They use actions and reactions based on the type of person they are. It makes you feel you’ve taken for granted the horror clichés of the past, before gaining knowledge of where every twist and turn could lead you in place of ignorance. Part of the horror and satisfaction of the film is how it’ll make people hypervigilant to the fears and considerations of everyday situations women face, but never considered a threat before. Creggers said it was difficult to get the film made because of his comedy background and the unique style of the premise. As a horror fan himself, his knowledge of the genre shows and the reception to the film proves Barbarian’s take on the clichés of the genre was something other fans relished in the same way.




 After watching, I still keep thinking about the convenience store woman giving Frank that breastfeeding tape. If he had told he needed his supplies for a multitude of other reasons, she would have given him a different tape, something else entirely, or nothing at all, and Mother and her victims would have been in an entirely different situation, for better or worse. How small a change that is that can affect an already monstrous situation is another horror all on its own.

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