How ‘Barbarian’ Brings Back Crazy Horror With An Airbnb Nightmare You Couldn’t Predict

Writer-director Zach Cregger, actor Georgina Campbell and actor Justin Long from the movie ‘Barbarian’. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

In the new horror movie “Barbaric,” Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb one dark and stormy night to find a strange man already in the house, claiming to be her rightful tenant.

What’s a girl to do with a double-booked dilemma, an inviting stranger, and nowhere to go? Will fate tip this arguably alarmingly cute encounter into classic rom-com territory? (The recent Netflix romance”Love at the Villa“, coincidentally, shares the same configuration… with very different results.)

Alas, Tess’s nightmare begins the moment she steps inside, lets her guard down, and shares a bottle of wine with handsome but sketchy Keith (“It” star Bill Skarsgard, minus the Pennywise Makeup) in writer-director Zach Cregger’s delightfully twisted foray into horror. In theaters today, “Barbarian” is a raucous descent with multiple surprises best not spoiled – but they do involve a spooky underground and monstrous secrets deep below the surface.

Best known as the actor and co-founder of sketch comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know, Cregger expertly orchestrates the season’s spooky run, citing cinematic inspirations from “Audition” by Takashi Miike at Sam Raimi’sevil death 2” and “drag me to hell.” Yet the chilling story was sparked by an Oprah-approved source – Gavin DeBecker‘The Gift of Fear: The Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence’, the non-fiction bestseller, which warns women to heed men’s micro red flags they subconsciously signal in their interactions daily.

An unwanted touch. Unsolicited sexual remarks. Favors that were never asked.

“I was struck by the fact that it’s not part of my day-to-day thought process because as a man I don’t have to be suspicious of half the population who might have some kind of bad intention towards me,” Cregger said. “It’s my privilege. I think I knew it intellectually, but it was the first time I really looked into it.”

Tess already has a lot on her plate and a toxic relationship in her rear-view mirror when she arrives at her Airbnb in a run-down Detroit neighborhood (filmed on location and in immersive sets built in Bulgaria) the day before an important job interview.

“She’s at this crossroads in her life where she’s contemplating this new job, this new beginning, and maybe this is the moment where she manages to change everything – maybe get away from this toxic pattern that she’s been in. is imposed over and over and over,” said Campbell, who brings a cautious intelligence to his “barbaric” persona. “You can tell she feels like she doesn’t have a lot of agency or the ability to walk away from these bad situations.”

The script’s wild twists also hooked Campbell, who landed on Cregger’s radar after starring in the “Hang the DJ” episode of “black mirrorand gives a breakout performance in ‘Barbarian.’ “I loved everything he did,” the British actor said. what sells. But very rarely do horror movies have a good story. I’m so glad he managed to come and meet me.”

George Campbell

George Campbell (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

The film began as a writing exercise in Cregger’s laundry room/office, where he works, takes Zoom calls, and recently painted colorful fruit studies for relaxation. Video chatting ahead of the film’s release from the same office where he wrote “Barbarian,” he held up a sheet full of vibrant apple paintings. “It’s a fun, thoughtful little thing that no one will ever judge.”

Although known for his work in comedy, Cregger is a voracious student of horror films and has always gravitated toward obscurity. At first the exercise, like his apples, was just for him, not to submit for anyone else’s approval – “a little scene that would just be scary, for no one” – as he challenged her to write a screenplay filled with as many red flags as possible that a man wouldn’t notice, but a woman might find annoying.

The story unfolded organically with no outline or intended ending, Cregger subverting clichés with his knowledge of horror conventions and creating a heroine who was wiser than the average final girl. When he was bored, he took wide turns for fun. A basement with a secret door. A hidden room with a camera. At one point, he added the character of AJ, a Hollywood sitcom actor whose introduction marks one of the surprising “Barbarian” changes.

“I thought, what is the opposite of [Tess]? A man with no conscience,” Cregger said. “A man who is completely oblivious to the damage he has inflicted on people. I wanted them both to go through the same prism.”

He wasn’t the kind of character that Long (“Galaxy Quest,” “He’s Not That Into You”) is often envisioned for. At first, Cregger was looking to cast someone more conventionally alpha and — “you can tell — hunky,” the actor jokes. But he was also a guy he knew only too well. “I spent a lot of time in LA and in this industry, so unfortunately you come across a lot of AJs,” Long said.

He was also inspired by one of his own personal obsessions – ABC reality TV shows”The single person” and “the bachelorette— channeling his male competitors to imbue AJ with an insidious edge beneath his nice boy veneer.

Many “Bachelorette” candidates, Long argues, exhibit toxic behavior for which they do not take responsibility. “And then they go on Men Tell All, they’ve had months of reading everything online and repeating excuses. These guys are now kind of apologizing to themselves that are actually responsible, but it’s is always performative.”

Justin Long

Justin Long (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

“What’s fascinating is how a lot of guys behave,” Long said. “I thought it was an interesting thing to explore with someone like AJ who is so free, so narcissistic and depending on who he’s around, behaves differently. … I remember reading [the ‘Barbarian’ script] and think, [Cregger] is someone who understands toxic behavior, because you really have to know that kind of behavior to write this.”

There have been many times when “Barbarian”, today one of the top rated horror movies of the year, almost didn’t make it to the screen.

Cregger has co-directed two previous comedy features, sharing directing duties on 2009’s “Miss March” and 2011’s “The Civil War on Drugs” with sketch partner Whitest Kids U’ Know Trevor Moore. The critical and commercial failure of the first made Cregger believe he was stuck in movie prison. “I convinced myself that this door was closed to me, and it took me a long time to start writing again,” he said.

By the time the “Barbarian” script was finished, Cregger was determined to get it done. But after sending it to every business in town, he says, the notes he received were about changing all the unconventional structure and character choices he liked. It took two years to find the partners who believed in his vision.

A bearded man in black sits for a portrait in a room bathed in red by neon.

Writer-director Zach Cregger dives into horror with “Barbarian.” (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Eventually, genre producers Raphael Margules and JD Lifshitz and their BoulderLight Pictures came on board, in turn bringing in “The Ring” and “It” producer Roy Lee of Vertigo Entertainment. The actors were cast, pre-production was underway and Cregger was due to fly to Bulgaria when their independent financier tragically died, he says.

Over the weekend, “Barbarian” suddenly collapsed. The crew members were fired. Cregger thought his last chance at a directing career had evaporated. Then Lee called Arnon Milchan’s New Regency, which has a deal with Disney until the 20th Century, who financed and saved the film. The movie was back.

With just two days to film the exteriors on location in Detroit, “Barbarian” production designer Rossitsa Bakeva and a largely Bulgarian crew built an entire residential neighborhood of 13 house fronts from scratch. The interior sets, where Tess, Keith and AJ descend from generic West Elm servanthood into pitch-black hellish tunnels, shot with shadowy precision by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, allowed the actors to immerse themselves in the “Barbarian” nightmare.

“The way we shot it, we’d be there with a cameraman, sound guys, everybody, and we’d light scenes with either a [flashlight] or a phone,” Campbell said with a laugh. “It was a little crazy.

Especially after watching it with a vocal audience screaming, screaming and squirming in front of the screen, she says, she loves its idiosyncrasies “and the fact that it’s absolutely bonkers.”

“Everyone who was there when we did it, everyone understood it. Everyone thought it was the best thing ever. But we didn’t know when we were doing it if it would translate , if people would get it, if people would think it was too weird,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a really fun movie. It’s crazy, it’s weird. It’s different. I think that’s exactly what you need from a horror movie. “

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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