The 12 Most Terrifying Moments In Barbarian, Ranked

The 12 Most Terrifying Moments In Barbarian, Ranked

The following article contains major spoilers for the movie "Barbarian."

It is impossible to discuss "Barbarian" without spoiling "Barbarian." That seems obvious, but the reveals of Zach Cregger's horror phantasmagoria are partly what makes it art. At its core, the story of a woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) who rents an Airbnb is about narratives — the ones that catalyze growth and the ones that leave others stymied. It's also about the stories "heroes" tell themselves, and to say literally any more than that ruins the first viewing experience of what is likely the year's most shocking film. 

The discourse will tell you (correctly) that "Barbarian" is this year's "Malignant" or, in the words of our own Ryan Scott, an "absolute unpredictable roller coaster of craziness." Both are accurate. But what makes it scary is a blend of surprises, social insight, and razor-sharp filmmaking that stuns from the beginning. Here are the 12 most terrifying moments of "Barbarian."

The Meet-Cute (Part One)

The list starts, ironically, with a moment that isn't scary at all — at least, retrospectively. The brilliant marketing campaign for "Barbarian" has hinged on obfuscation. At most, it has revealed that there are possibly sinister things happening in the basement of a Detroit-area Airbnb booked simultaneously by the previously mentioned Tess and Keith (Bill Skarsgård), a jazz musician with Motor City roots. 

Since Bill Skarsgård is arguably most famous for playing Pennywise the Dancing Clown in "It," ads for "Barbarian" have strongly suggested Keith has sinister aims. This isn't an accident and neither is Skarsgård's casting in the role (the actor is an executive producer of the project). Everything about Keith is a massive act of misdirection, which is why the film's genuine meet-cute is, on first viewing, downright terrifying. 

"Barbarian" winds up having two protagonists: Tess, a woman of color, and AJ (Justin Long), a cisgender white male. How both observe and approach the menace at their rundown rental home speaks volumes about their gender, privilege, and moral characters. And that's why Tess' first encounters with Keith feel rife with danger, right up until the moment that they aren't. Let's break it down.

The Meet-Cute (Part Two)

When we first meet Keith, he's staying in the Airbnb Tess booked. This raises massive red flags. Keith then encourages her to enter the Airbnb and figure out her next steps (another red flag). Tess then shrewdly asks to see Keith's reservation. These narrative beats alone are rife with tension and mounting menace. Zach Cregger takes advantage of his actors' natural height disparity — Bill Skarsgård apparently stands just under 6'4" while Georgina Campbell is reportedly 5'6" — and shoots Keith looming over Tess from the jump. There's an eerie sense he's in control and has the lay of the house's strange, impeccably decorated environment. 

What's more, Keith's further attempts at kindness are potentially sinister on paper. He makes Tess tea (it could be spiked) and is the one person who's seen the obscure documentary that's brought her to town (did he know she was coming?). Then, he seems to make a point of uncorking wine in front of her because Tess shouldn't trust strangers. Keith is either a great guy or a ticking time-bomb of terror; in most movies, he'd wind up as the latter.

"Barbarian" isn't most movies. Keith is a genuinely good dude. He couldn't be less like Marcus, the controlling boyfriend Tess is building up the courage to split from, or AJ, a producer accused of sexually assaulting an actress. The meet-cute is only scary on first viewing and a terrifying setup for a thematic point "Barbarian" stipulates: There are no good guys out there because the ones who are don't survive the world built by those who aren't. And, the good guys are outnumbered.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Tess Finds The Underground Lair(s)

Tess and Keith have a wonderful night and Tess appears to nail her all-important interview. She returns to the Airbnb to use the bathroom and finds it out of toilet paper. Things instantly get worse from there. Tess goes to the cellar for toiletries and swiftly gets locked within it. She notices a rope peaking out of the wall, and, curiosity getting the better of her, pulls it. With a sharp creak, a hidden door opens, revealing a pitch-black hallway. Wisely, Tess doesn't enter it at first. She sets up a mirror to reflect some light down the hallway and after seeing it is clear of danger, ventures forward. She discovers a padded room with a soiled mattress, an old VCR tape recorder, and a bloody handprint on the wall.

This is shocking enough (in part because the room's sickening green color palate is a sharp departure from the rich blue and golds that Zach Cregger's favored up until this scene) but the harrowing room is just an appetizer for a second reveal. When Keith returns to the Airbnb, frees Tess, and almost immediately goes missing, a second door leading to untold depths is found. The moment doubles as a storytelling promise: things are about to go so much farther than the characters or audience are ready for.

Keith Meets His Maker

Keith dies as he lives, awesome and awkward. His attempts to flirt with Tess are gorgeously bumbling. With the liquid courage of wine in him, his attempt to fold a recently washed duvet, which involves throwing it over his head like a Halloween ghost costume, is exhausting but endearing. Keith is a solid human so, of course, he gets his head bashed in.

Tess goes to find Keith down the previously mentioned second doorway and, thankfully, she does. He's crouched on the ground, eyes wide and almost bloodshot. Before Tess has time to react, Keith whispers two chilling phrases: "There's something else down here" and "Something bit me." Up until now, there's been little suggestion that "Barbarian" was anything other than a horror film full of humans. This is the first hair-raising hint it isn't. Still, Keith might not be trustworthy. Is he claiming something bit him to manipulate Tess' fears?

It appears that way, briefly. Keith grabs Tess' arm and tries to drag her into the tunnel. He claims the thing which bit him came from Tess' direction, and it's immediately clear he's wrong. With terrifying speed, the naked and abnormally large creature called The Mother (Matthew Patrick Davis) sprints into the frame and bashes Keith's head into the rock until his skull is less than pulp. That's a terrifying image, but what's scarier is how succinctly this moment flips "Barbarian" on its head. Any stable ground its audience was on is gone, and it only gets more horrifying from here.

AJ Tells His Side Of The Story

There are all sorts of monsters in "Barbarian." One of them is The Mother. Another is AJ. Yes, AJ, the owner of the sinister Airbnb and the film's second protagonist, played by frequent paragon of virtue Justin Long. Long's casting is as purposeful as Skarsgård's. "Barbarian" is deliberately calibrated to subvert expectations. Long has built his career on playing "nice guys" and his podcast, "Life is Short," suggests he's an empathetic one in reality. The audience arrives at "Barbarian" primed to trust Long's AJ, even as evidence mounts they shouldn't. When it becomes clear that AJ's committed an atrocity, "Barbarian" is at its most terrifying.

In a single unbroken shot, AJ talks to his friend (Zack Cregger, in a stomach-churning cameo) in a Detroit club. The friend wants AJ to tell him what really happened: Did AJ actually rape the actress that's accusing him? AJ says no. Then he says more. He says she "took some persuading." He says she wasn't "into it at first, but then she was really into it." 

This is the language of rape culture, but if audiences aren't familiar with that, AJ's description of himself as a "really persistent guy" should ring the loudest of alarm bells. The scene goes from disquieting to acid-reflux-inducing in a manner of seconds, offering an extended and slow-burn look at the logic of a sexual predator. AJ isn't just as scary as The Mother. As "Barbarian" goes on to reveal, he's actually scarier.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Frank Makes A Work Call

Richard Brake's character of Frank in "Barbarian" might be the movie's most surprising element — and that's saying a lot. Frank anchors the movie's shocking flashback to the 1980s when the run-down area of Detroit is set in a bustling suburb. Frank lives in AJ's Airbnb decades before it becomes one, and what he does there is deeply unsettling. 

We follow Frank to the store for plastic sheets and diapers because he's prepping for a home birth sans midwife. He then goes to a woman's house and puts on a jumpsuit embroidered "Carlos." As "Carlos," Frank approaches a woman's house and claims he works for the power company and needs to examine her living space. She lets him in, gets the lay of the land, and leaves.

Are you unsettled yet? You should be. What's terrifying about this sequence is the implications it's rife with. The composition of Zach Cregger's shots and Anna Drubich's squeamish score make it abundantly clear Frank is up to no good. What that entails, though, is rough around the edges. We don't see Frank harm the woman whose house he invades. There's no mention of Carlos again. In this sinister stretch of the movie, Frank is both a monster on screen and one made worse by the audience's mind. That's what makes Frank's "work" call so scary and levels up the tension as the film continues.

Frank's Living Room Is Revealed

"Barbarian" is a tremendous work of horror film craft. Yes, the movie's surprises are excellent. But praising them doesn't accurately convey how technically excellent and precise Zach Cregger's film is. The reveal of Frank's living room is a perfect example. Following Frank's deeply upsetting "work" call, he arrives home and talks to a neighbor. That neighbor is getting ready to move because the area's getting more dangerous Frank then claims he'll never leave. When he enters the house, that statement feels abundantly clear. 

The living room — which, in the present, is clean, chic, and spare — is rife with trash and rot. It's clear from one look that something awful happened there. And the time that Cregger takes making audiences familiar with Frank's abode during the first act of "Barbarian" makes this moment hit like a hammer. The audience already intimately understands the layout of this space and what lies beneath it; this terrifying moment proves that Cregger educated them well.

The Feeding Sequence

For almost the entirety of "Barbarian," it isn't clear why The Mother exists or what her endgame is. As The Mother's captive, Tess has learned these precious facts: do what she says, and she gets angry when agitated. Oh, and she also treats her captives like they're babies. When AJ winds up in a cell with Tess, she tries to tell him as much. An opportunity to make good on her wisdom arrives swiftly. The Mother lowers a large, milk-filled baby bottle into the cell. She shakes it. Tess, unblinking, walks over to the bottle and places her lips on its nodule, sucking down the milk within. For many, this will be upsetting enough. Zach Cregger and "Barbarian" take things further. 

AJ refuses to drink The Mother's offering and she responds with due punishment, lifting AJ out of the cell and dragging him to a sheet-covered room bathed in nauseous purple light. The Mother then throws AJ onto the ground and forces him to nurse directly from her breasts. On one level, this is a sort of karmic justice. AJ forced himself onto a woman and is now forced into an act against his will. On the other hand, this image is so out of the left field that my jaw, personally, landed on the movie theater floor and is still there, at least spiritually. The dichotomy is terrifying, giggle-inducing, and a true "Barbarian" original.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

The Cops Do Nothing (Part One)

Let me preface this with the following truth: I am a cisgender white writer unpacking the racial and social implications of a sequence in "Barbarian" where Tess, a woman of color, interacts with two useless cops, one of whom is also a person of color. If you're reading what I have to say about this scene, I advocate you read what writers of color think, too. Read what they have to say first and come back if you'd like. This article isn't going anywhere.

Continuing, I have to start with wow. Tess' interaction with Detroit Metro P.D. is easily one of the scariest moments in "Barbarian." Tess encounters two cops when escaping the Airbnb. AJ is still inside, trapped with The Mother, and so she calls the police and seeks their aid. When the squad car arrives, she is initially relieved to see one of the officers isn't white. 

That relief vanishes swiftly. The officer is quickly dismissive of Tess and profiles her from the jump. Tess, ever savvy, is quick to anticipate and refute the officer's classist assumptions that she's a "crackhead" or "junkie" and quickly makes him accountable for AJ's potential murder at The Mother's hands. Things get worse, though, when Tess and the officers actually arrive at the Airbnb.

The Cops Do Nothing (Part Two)

When Tess and the officer get to the Airbnb, he refutes her evidence that something's amiss. Yes, there's a broken window, but Tess already admitted to breaking it herself. Sure, the house is eerie, but Tess is probably a raving lunatic on drugs and that's the far more pressing issue. When Tess tries to exert her will and break down the front door to save AJ, the officer's hand goes straight to his gun. The only crime he sees here is Tess attempting a B&E. The dispatch crackles to life with reports that shots have been fired in a different neighborhood. The officers drive off quickly.

For my money, this sequence is a daring reinforcement of Zach Cregger's core thesis and an escalation of it. Neither of these men treats Tess with anything even resembling empathy. She is profiled, dismissed, and threatened for trying to save someone's life, all within a matter of minutes. These are the guys who are supposed to be protecting and serving. They barely do either. Oftentimes, reality can be the scariest element in the horror genre. 

As frighteningly, their allegiance to the oppressive institution which employs them is iron-clad. Cregger knows audiences are familiar with the "white, racist cop." By casting an actor of color in one role (and having the white actor play a silent but no less threatening officer), he isn't refuting the stereotype so much as stipulating a different, terrifying thought. Those who protect and serve are rarely on the side of those they protect and serve, no matter what they have in common with them. Defenders of police brutality refer to those who are corrupt as "bad apples." In a movie full of bad men and misunderstood women, it's no mistake that there are no good men on the police force we see.

The Mother Backs Away From The Door

For most of "Barbarian," The Mother is depicted as caring and relentless. She pursues her aims to the fullest at all times. Her investment in her captors (and their obedience) is unyielding. During the film's third act, it becomes abundantly clear how little she's able or willing to let go of. That's why the one moment when she does back off is utterly terrifying.

AJ and Tess have both escaped The Mother's cage but head in opposite directions. Tess finds herself in the Airbnb's cellar and headed towards the house's higher ground. AJ, conversely, is in uncharted territory. He follows the house's underground caverns all the way to a spare wooden door. The Mother pursues him, going so far as to come into AJ's view. Then she freezes. Without making a sound, she backs slowly into the darkness. If "Barbarian" has taught its audience anything, it's that the movie they're watching has a tendency to escalate. Whatever's behind that door is worse than The Mother herself, and the moment when AJ and the audience realize that is chilling to the bone.

Tess Tries To Leave The Airbnb (For Real)

Enough is enough for Tess. She's been a captive for weeks, the cops were ineffective, and AJ is more than likely dead. It's time to leave the Detroit metro area. Tess gets into her car and prepares to drive into the night, far from the Airbnb, The Mother, and a month's worth of horror. To the credit of Zack Cregger and "Barbarian," the film could end here and be satisfying. There have been enough "WTF" moments. The parallel stories of Tess and AJ are a thematic exploration of gender and racial privilege, and how women of color and cis white men are conditioned to handle horror. If Tess leaves at this exact moment, "Barbarian" is still very good.

Then, The Mother bursts through the Airbnb door and scares the breath out of the audience, elevating "Barbarian" to "great" status. The Mother's emergence to the surface comes out of nowhere. She's been subterranean until this moment. Suddenly, she's also bursting onto the scene like a grudge-addled professional wrestler. That, too, comes out of nowhere. Because "Barbarian" has trained its viewers to expect the unexpected, this all tracks, but that doesn't make it any less horrifying or fun.

The Water Tower

Remember how I said The Mother takes on professional wrestler tendencies in the film's third act? That isn't hyperbole or exaggeration. WWE has a video showcasing the biggest wall-busters; when AJ and Tess take shelter in a local water tower with a homeless man named Andre (Jaymes Butler) who encountered The Mother before, The Mother tops all those entrances and exits entirely.

Andre's story is low-key layered with thematic resonance. He's ignored by the film's protagonists until the film's third act. As a person of color who is also homeless, he is why Frank's neighbors micro-aggressively think "the neighborhood's getting worse." But Andre isn't the problem or a source of violent terror — Frank is. Andre, unlike those who care for his neighborhood or play tourist there, is aware of the rot at his home's core. He tries to care for those who visit. He actually protects and serves his neighborhood. Andre rules.

Unfortunately, in a terrifying instant, the Mother bursts through his wall and tears his arm off his body. Andre's death is a genuinely funny and sad punchline. He's convinced he's safe in the water tower because The Mother hasn't bothered him in 15 years. Professional wrestling, and "Barbarian," teaches him otherwise. The second you feel safe is when someone comes out of left field and squashes your hope or literal body. For Andre, it's the latter.

AJ Shows His True Colors

Justin Long's AJ is exactly who the audience thinks he is. He's a self-preserving and deluded blowhard who's preyed on at least one woman. Self-preservation is his modus operandi. His return to Detroit to liquidate his rental home is proof of this, as is his inability to work with Tess while escaping The Mother's clutches. We see AJ for who he is. 

And yet, "Barbarian" is still so twisty and unpredictable that Zack Cregger fools us into thinking AJ will try to have a real hero moment. He knows he has to make things right in his life; he says as much. Then, staring The Mother down atop Andre's water tower, he chooses self-preservation again and throws Tess off the tower to make The Mother give chase. 

This is nothing less than comic book villain behavior (quite literally, this is what the Joker does in "The Dark Knight") and at this point, it is frightening not because Tess is in peril. It's scary because the movie has managed to throw the audience for another loop as AJ shows his true colors once and for all: He is a barbarian.

Read this next: Horror Roles That Changed Actors Forever

The post The 12 Most Terrifying Moments In Barbarian, Ranked appeared first on /Film.

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