We tossed two of our top horror degenerates, Kevin Cookman and Eddie Lopes, into a room and made them talk about BARBARIAN.
Kevin Cookman: Eddie, you’ve been a good friend of the magazine for a while. You’ve always been in our spheres as our resident genre fiend, so it only felt right to hit you up to talk about the gnarliest mainstream horror movie in a minute.
Eddie Lopes: This is the one. We’ve had a lot of good horror lately, but this one seems to be breaking past just the genre fans and I’m so excited about it. I’ve already seen it twice, and not only is it fun to watch, but it’s fun to watch other people watch. It’s got my gears turning.
KC: A huge part of the reason I’m so excited to have the conversation we’re about to have about Zach Cregger’s BARBARIAN is that it’s been totally shrouded in secrecy. It’s a film that’s been led by a leash of spoiler phobia, so I’m excited to look at the film as a whole rather than further act as unpaid cogs in the marketing machine. So what do you take away from BARBARIAN, a movie about an Airbnb where underneath lives a labyrinth that belongs to an eight-foot-tall milk mommy who murders all that book it?
EL: This movie has a lot of guts. It’s not necessarily doing anything we’ve never seen before—in fact, it’s doing everything we’ve seen before. Something we’ve seen in a lot of horror movies lately is this meta ability to use your expectations against you, but this is not trying to comment on horror filmmaking like THE CABIN IN THE WOODS or SCREAM. It’s a movie made for horror fans, and not because it’s throwing tropes in your face, but because it’s saying you think you know what to expect next, but we’re going to subvert that in a way you’re never going to guess.
KC: BARBARIAN turns you into Jamie Kennedy from SCREAM, rather than putting in a character that’s Jamie Kennedy from SCREAM. It’s such smart horror filmmaking that it feels like we’ve all been lied to that this is Zach Cregger’s first solo directorial feature, let alone his first foray into horror. It feels like he’s David F. Sandberg transporting in from another timeline to secretly drop the film he’s been exercising his way up to and adopting the name “Zach Cregger” to take credit for being a first feature darling.
EL: I didn’t know anything about this movie going in because I was told not to. I didn’t even know who made it. So as soon as I got out, I heard it was from one of THE WHITEST KIDS U’KNOW and it made my head spin into realizing that maybe our best horror filmmakers are comedians.
KC: What really jumps out to me in anything from NOPE to Chris Rock’s SAW installment, to varying degrees of success, is how meticulous they are in design. Look at Danny McBride and David Gordon Green’s HALLOWEEN franchise, films that are pretty run of the mill and suffer from the Blumhouse cookie-cutter process, but there are moments in the 2018 one that are more elaborate than they had any right to be. There’s the sequence where Michael Myers walks the streets of Haddonfield for the first time again and it’s a long tracking shot where he’s fucking up people in two different houses and it’s a sublime moment of 2010s horror in a movie that’s a seven out of ten at most. After ten years of the Apatow style of relaxed comedy where the funniest ad-lib is found in the edit, there’s a lot of comedians in film who grew up on Landis and TOP SECRET and everyone now wants to make their own Rube Goldberg machine in horror since it’s the only viable genre at the moment and for the foreseeable future.
EL: Horror is the sandbox everyone wants to play in. It’s the perfect budget for studios to let people work without much oversight—BARBARIAN specifically is something you keep asking yourself “how did this get funded?” You’re not seeing this in other genres, unless it’s a prestige drama meant for a festival run.
KC: Every piece of modern media is consistently streamlined to cater the demographic data that a streamer provides to its creators, but horror is in a wild card zone where no one is holding its hand, except for a few notorious parties. In most cases, the more shocking and weird it is, the better the engagement will be. You’re not hearing a lot of stories from horror directors about getting asked to tone their work down. Studio horror in the last decade’s been fucking crazy, I mean, Luca Guadagnino remade SUSPIRIA and ended it in a Thom Yorke blood orgy and it was released by Amazon. As crazy as BARBARIAN is, it’s falling in line with a consistent pattern of mega conglomerates allowing directors to let their freak flags fly so long as it’s for a horror movie.
EL: Horror is getting a free pass somehow. Look at this movie and you see it’s owned by 20th Century Studios, which is owned by Disney. I don’t understand how this got made, and in interviews with Cregger you’ll learn that he was granted carte blanche, which is amazing. And this tentacle that Disney has absorbed has put out some really good work so far: THE EMPTY MAN, PREY, and a lot of the stuff that was dumped on streaming, too. But BARBARIAN opened wide! It opened 2,300 screens!
KC: It added 500 screens last week! In those Zach Cregger interviews, it’s telling that he’s as shocked that he got to make the movie as we are right now. You praised the 20th Century Studios slate, but I want to really give it its flowers. 20th Century currently has two major horror franchises under their belt with PREDATOR and HELLRAISER, and they also have two of the most esoteric original horror films that will be listed as highlights of the decade, which are of course THE EMPTY MAN and BARBARIAN. The key difference of course is that, unlike BARBARIAN, THE EMPTY MAN, which did not make any money thanks to being unceremoniously dumped in the dog days of COVID and is about to be delisted from streaming, is that it wasn’t a Disney production. The Mouse adopted it from the 20th Century Fox sale. BARBARIAN is produced with Walt’s decapitated head’s own money. And while I’ll be remiss to give Disney any credit, they have a viable pathway here to make a pure sci-fi and horror powerhouse to rival Blumhouse.
EL: Do you really think they’ll do that? Won’t it just don an air of brand anonymity to keep cranking out AVATAR sequels and Oscar bait?
KC: You’re ultimately going to be correct, because once AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER is released, and because it’s smart to never bet against Jimmy Cameron, we’re probably going to have a new highest grossing film of all time produced by a fairly nascent studio, despite its grand legacy in its former life. What they do with that success is going to determine everything. Hear me out, though: they’ll go from having been a studio that had a BOB’S BURGERS movie flop, that had a DEATH ON THE NILE movie flop, that had a KINGSMAN movie flop, that had a WEST SIDE STORY remake flop, but found rich profits in BARBARIAN and blue aliens. If you wager what their losses have been next to what their successes have added up to, numbers-wise, things do point in the way of genre. What AVATAR could potentially fuck up though is that influx of capital influencing a shift to the brand anonymity that you brought up: calling AVATAR a genre film feels more like a technicality than a badge of honor. They’ll very likely turn their back on an emphasis on genre entertainment, and instead focus on general entertainment, but if I’m role-playing a content analyst in Disney’s offices, I’m presenting the portfolio that pitches a shift to the Blumhouse model.
EL: What started as a dumping ground for the remaining 20th Century Fox titles could be used to take over the theatrical experience. There’s two things that I’ve been excited to go to theaters for, and that my friends are stoked to go for, and it’s blockbusters and experiences. Marvel, Pixar, and Disney proper can cover the blockbusters, so it leaves a ripe opportunity for 20th Century to fill the latter. Funding $4.5 million chillers with AVATAR money? It’s pennies in the bucket. If there’s truly an effort to keep the theatrical experience alive, this is how they’re going to have to do it. It just requires a concentrated focus of studio-wide purpose, and BARBARIAN is just as equal a success story to me as TOP GUN: MAVERICK is.
KC: Would BARBARIAN have become a sensation had it dropped on streaming?
EL: We saw it happen with MALIGNANT. Movies with this energy have legs.
KC: If it’s wild, people will screenshot it, you’re right.
EL: But they sure do make a heap of money, so it’s throwing cash away to not launch them in theaters.
KC: I went to see the movie opening night in a shitty mood after a bad day in a crowd of mouth-breathers who remained unmasked the whole night to watch a movie I was worried would take ages to work up to the money shot that I kept getting badgered about on Twitter. So when I say the movie popped off, I mean that it popped the fuck off even in the midst of a sea of factors that could’ve kept it from popping off. This would have been a title that’d do perfectly fine on streaming, but at the end of my theatrical experience, I was buzzing as though I’d seen AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON in 1981; knowing 100 other people had just seen the same thing as me made me feel less crazy.
EL: It forces you to be vulnerable in a crowd of people, which is rare. Early in the movie, you kind of have to give up control and let it take you. It’s like driving through the night with no headlights in a full car. Trust the process, and trust the driver.
KC: Do you have a similar experience when watching the A24 horror movies in theaters?
EL: Not recently. BODIES, BODIES, BODIES and even X were straight down the middle. There are some films that push you into a corner like LAMB where you’re not sure where it’s going and then you end up with a human-lamb-centaur, but A24 tends to thrive in a weirder space, or so they sell themselves. Even something like MEN that dissolves into something that’s trying to be a sensory overload feels more calculated in a mathematical shocks per minute way, where something like BARBARIAN feels more genuine; it’s the work of someone who isn’t sure the movie is ever going to exist as he envisioned it, whereas the freedom of an A24 production is almost working against the actual creative freedom of the directors given the go-ahead for an expected product.
KC: I’m glad you brought up MEN, which I thought of quite a bit during BARBARIAN, in large part because “MEN” is a more apt title for this film than it is for MEN. As weird and friendly to the Art Major BAs as A24 purports to be, so much of their horror is incessant lead-up to one climactic gag. MEN makes you listen to musical stingers on the tails of micro aggressions before it finally treats you to a never-ending series of naked men mouth birthing and dick birthing. It’s a gussied up version of THE PROWLER, a completely whatever slasher from 1981 that Tom Savini did the make-up for, and of course his scenes are the best, and doubly of course those scenes last six seconds at most. The rest of the film is kids stumbling around in the dark until you get to the next money shot. There’s no incentive to keep you going except for the one freak on set putting in the most work, and A24 is giving me a similar feeling with a self-important lemon twist. BARBARIAN is so obscenely well-crafted that in the first 30 minutes, what would otherwise be the boring lead-up ends up becoming a bizarre genre mish-mash of a grounded paranoid thriller through a feminine POV that turns into a sweet rom-com. If there was never a goblin lady in the basement, I would’ve been perfectly fine watching 50 more minutes of a well-meaning Blues musician from Michigan who’s softly gentrifying Detroit and the documentary researcher who’s a little infatuated but also at odds with his methodology. That’s a movie! There’s three different movies in BARBARIAN that work completely fine on their own, it’s just so giving.
EL: The A24 stuff feels pitched. BARBARIAN feels found. And then there’s the amazing central question that it presents: who’s the villain of the movie? At the beginning it’s Keith.
KC: He presents himself as nice, but can’t stop doubting the veracity of anything that comes out of Tess’s mouth, to the point where they both get trapped in a dungeon.
EL: And then there’s even a moment where Tess wakes him up from a night terror and starts antagonizing him to the point where she could be a villain. And then you meet an actual monster and she very quickly becomes the villain of the movie, until you get to Justin Long who’s the obvious villain of the movie. But wait, you get to the serial rapist who created the monster who’s actually the villain of the movie, and that’s not even including the Detroit police department or Detroit the city itself as being the key villains of the movie.
KC: It’s a debate to decide on who toppled the first domino. This is what most impressed me about BARBARIAN: it’s not just a fun haunted house, like Craven’s THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, which is nobly attempting to communicate the social commentary that BARBARIAN ends up cementing with much more sinister diction. True evil is not some simple monster you can shoot in the head: there’re levels, they’re impenetrable, and you will likely never have the opportunity to shoot them in the head so you best get used to getting lost in the maze.
EL: This movie is going to become a source text on how to combine genres and how to pull off a rollercoaster like this. It’s a perfect template, but also a perfect exercise: maybe if you want to pull off a perfect rom-com, you should start it as a horror movie.
KC: For anyone looking for another fix of BARBARIAN, what would you put them on?
EL: It depends on which part of BARBARIAN you love: there’s very little that embodies all parts of it. MALIGNANT scratches the same itch, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD throws you for a complete loop, POSSESSOR goes into some gnarly places, and, oh man, this movie has a ton of great back-catalogue influences from Fulci to Stuart Gordon.
KC: Cregger definitely seems like someone who’s studied horror like they’re Homeric texts. I started thinking about the terrifying tunnel mazes of KILL LIST, the final foe of maybe the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, [REC], and both THE WAILING from South Korea and DEMON KNIGHT are fellow straight-faced genre movies that crack open into complete gonzo delirium.
EL: BARBARIAN is a movie that could just as easily guide you into the populist classics, or deep into the gnarliest depths, and it’s amazing that 2022 has provided a movie that can deliver on those extremes without feeling forced.
KC: Thanks, Disney!