Barbarian, Zach Cregger’s latest film, is the latest addition to the growing corpus of Detroit horror – and in some ways the most systematic. Rather than centring suburban horror on one intruder, one victim, or one family, Cregger focuses on the history of a house, which he uses to spin a horror history of Detroit that stretches back several generations. This approach isn’t immediately clear from the outset, however, making Barbarian a gloriously tantalising watch as its premise gradually reveals itself. By the end, Cregger has mapped the connective tissue of suburban Detroit as it wanes and decays, while reinventing both the terror and comedy of suburban horror in the process, resulting in one of the most original horror films of the year.
The film takes place in three discrete acts, each of which focuses on a particular generation and dweller in a small house in inner-city Detroit. The first takes place in the present, and revolves around an Airbnb renter, Tess Marshall, played by Georgina Campbell, who arrives at the house late one night, only to find that it is already occupied by another renter, Keith Tosko, played by Bill Skarsgard. Like each of the three acts, this one begins with car travel, as Tess has to decide between staying at the house, driving somewhere else, or spending the night in her car. Eventually, she decides to stay, partly because the darkness outside quickly takes on a strange intensity as she scans it from the front porch. This is a heightened darkness, impossible to parse, so thick that it coats the basic outlines and textures of the neighbourhood, and pervasive enough to percolate into all the semi-anonymous spaces that can make Airbnb travel so uncanny. While there are a few faltering moments between Tess and Keith, they surprisingly survive the evening, and even develop a quasi-romantic rapport.
It’s only the next morning that the full strangeness of Tess’ situation emerges – the last occupied house in one of the most blighted of inner-city Detroit neighbourhoods. While she leaves the house in daylight, and enjoys the mobility of her car again, this fluidity of movement is offset by the abandoned houses peeling past on either side, as well as the incongruity between the suburbs the highway that takes her to the inner city, and finally the inner city itself. By moving fluidly between these spaces, she reiterates their incommensurability, suggesting that even the most seamless automotive passage is no longer enough to reinvest Detroit with a semblance of organic continuity. Tess is particularly invested in this continuity, too, since she’s travelled to interview for a film about how jazz is (supposedly) revitalising Detroit by restoring the connective tissue that seems so absent here.
Between the initial setup with the double booking, and this uncanny commute in and out of the urban core, Cregger suggests a broader horror that’s more aligned with the unmappable syntax of the Detroit urban sprawl. As occurs in It Follows, another classic Detroit horror film, this initially manifests as a fear of the middle distance, and of suburbia’s traditional role as the middle distance between city and country. The first disruption in the Airbnb house involves the back door, which Cregger relegates to the middle distance with the help of an anamorphic lens. Similarly, when Tess returns home after her job interview, a mere blip in the middle distance suddenly breaks into the foreground, as a manic runner calls out to her, instructs her to stop, and then bangs on the front door when she bolt inside to escape him.
This fear of the middle distance quickly becomes the prelude to a collapse of the Detroit sprawl into a series of recursive and nested spaces, all of which begin the house’s basement. Tess starts exploring the basement just after her encounter with the running man, and is trapped down there, without a phone, when the door unexpectedly closes. She soon discovers a secret passage, which is so dark she has to angle a mirror to catch the basement light in order to navigate it. At the end, she finds a room lit by a single fluorescent light, containing a bed, a video camera, and a series of bloody handprints on the wall. This room is like a cipher for the unimaginable labour required to visualise the Detroit sprawl, which continues into another passage that takes Tess deep into the rocky strata of the city, but also into its industrial past, as a series of metal grates, metal cages and mine-like structures lead her further and further below. When she shows the basement to Keith, both of them are confronted by a monstrous creature, at which point Cregger abruptly shifts to the second act.
Like the first act, the second starts with driving, and deals with another distinct relation to the house. The first time around, we had an Airbnb renter pulling up to the property; now we have the Airbnb owner, AJ Gilbride, played by Justin Long, cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway, high on the flow of driving – that is, until he comes to a sudden halt. Pulling over to take a phone call, McBride, a famous sitcom actor, is told that he has been accused of assault, meaning his latest project has been pulled from the air. A beat later, his wealth manager is telling him he needs to liquidate his assets, and a beat after that he’s in Michigan, trying to ascertain what he can get from his rental properties, which includes the house from the first act. Gilbride arrives two weeks after the events in the basement, so all of Tess and Keith’s possessions are still in place. Yet, in one of the great comic set pieces of the film, Gilbride remains oblivious to the creepiness of it all, and to the creepiness of the underground rooms.
Instead, he immediately absorbs these recursive spaces back into the suburban sprawl by gleefully treating them as more square footage for his real estate investment. Even though the lights have gone out by the time he arrives at the basement, and the house is infinitely creepier for all the residues of its last two guests, Gilbride remains unflappable, greeting every threshold of horror, and every gateway to the next underground space, with the incredulous delight of a property developer discovering new dimensions to his asset. He blithely measures around all the objects that terrified Tess and Keith – the bed, the camera, the cages, the hand print – and only registers fear when the unseen creature rips his tape measure from his grasp.
Right when this superb horror-comedy peaks, Cregger again cuts to another generation – the homeowner, Frank, played by Richard Brake. This takes us back to the early 80s, and the tipping-point of Detroit suburbia, the very cusp of decay. All the houses and gardens are perfectly manicured, but the first thing we hear is a radio broadcast about Reagan inheriting the worst economy in fifty years, while Frank’s neighbour has become the first in the suburb to put up his house for sale, concerned that even a year is too long to wait in the current climate. On the brink of dissolution, Detroit suburbia is at maximum potency, producing the most fluid car movements of the film – assured enough to suffuse the camera’s passage through space with a new liquidity too, which Cregger captures through long tracking-shots that harken back to the thrill of early Steadicam sequences. For the only time in the film, suburbia and car travel converge into a true connective tissue, although this is also what permits Frank to commit the nefarious deeds that set the main narrative into motion as well.
For it quickly emerges that Frank is a sociopath who likes to kidnap women, and that he’s able to do this largely by subsuming himself into the suburban-automotive sightlines that still comprise the city. He spots his latest victim while he’s in his car, while she’s getting into her car, and as a used car ad is playing on the radio. Rather than eulogise an imaginary suburban past, Cregger, and Barbarian, suggest that classical Detroit was already pathological, meaning that the later generations of Airbnb owners and renters are experiencing a ghost of a ghost, the haunting absence of a system that was already broken. This lends an incredible charge to the key trope of so much recent Detroit horror – the prospect of traversing the suburbs without a car, and of dismantling the synergy between suburbs and car. The climax of Barbarian intercuts Tess walking along the street for the first time, with Keith tracing his way along a wire that stretches the length of the underground tunnel, challenging the audience to try to imagine how these two incommensurate spaces might meet up in a map of Detroit.
When Tess does finally encounter cars, and automotive infrastructure, it’s curiously impotent, and certainly doesn’t generate the flow of the 80s flashbacks. She comes across a petrol station, but any sense that it might offer safe harbour is offset by Keith discovering the decrepit Frank, at the end of the passages, and the tapes of his victims, the last of which details an abduction at this same service station. Even when Tess calls the police to the service station, it’s not enough to restore the flow of suburbia, since while they might grudgingly drive her back to the house, they refuse to search inside, or to take her claims of abduction seriously. As promising as it might initially seem, then, this conjunction of service station and police car can’t restore the autoconnective tissue of classical Detroit, leaving Tess with no option but to set cars and suburbia at direct odds with one another. Waiting for night to fall, and for the creature to leave the basement, she rams her car into it and impales it against the house. All the fluid synergy between car and house that suffused the 80s sequence is now fractured into a standoff between car and house that leaves both truncated and diminished.
This is the climactic image of the film – a vision of the spatial and industrial logic of Detroit, of suburbia itself, as it involutes and implodes. The final twist is that the creature who inhabited the recursive underground spaces was also recursive herself – the end product of Frank sleeping with his victims, with their daughters, with their granddaughters, with their great-granddaughters, and so on ad infinitum, to provide the personification of the unmappable suburban void that we see here. And as a figure that is both terrifying and ridiculous, this creature is the perfect emblem for a film that nails both the absurdity and horror of suburbia, of the genres it produced, and the history that made it a litmus test for the American Dream.