Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: A woman is staying in a mysterious house. She hears a noise one night, which leads her to explore the house. Inevitably, she discovers the dwelling has a basement. (Don’t go in the basement.) She calls out, peering into the dimly lit space to see if anyone is down there. (Don’t go in the basement!) Gingerly, she walks down the staircase. (Don’t! Go! In! The! Basement!!!) She discovers a rope which, when pulled, opens a hidden door. A dark hallway beckons. There’s a dingy room near the end of it, empty except for a grungy mattress and a video camera on a tripod. And then, right outside of this tiny, dungeon-like suite is another door, which leads even further down….
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before as well: A studio releases a horror movie with little to no fanfare, right in the interzone between the very end of summer and the official beginning of the Fall movie season. Technically, the studio’s parent company is releasing it — they mostly wanted the rights to a superhero franchise the other owned, see, but they also inherited a lot of other non-superhero projects they aren’t that interested in, long story — and other than dropping a mysterious trailer on YouTube a month or so before, does almost zero marketing for it. The fact that it opens in the No. 1 spot at the box office on its first weekend (and performs better than expected) is simply chalked up to it being a particularly slow week for new releases.
And then slowly, the peer-to-peer endorsements begins to spread. Those who’ve seen it don’t elaborate on what happens; best to go in cold, they say. But definitely go see it. Even critics who didn’t review it during its opening weekend — as well as some who wouldn’t normally give a typical horror movie a first look, much less a second thought — begin to stump for it as well. Social media timelines start to fill with reactions, along with shout-outs to the well-known actor who suddenly shows up at the halfway mark and becomes the film’s co-lead. (He’s listed on the film’s IMDb page and has done press for it, but if you don’t know this person is in it, his appearance is a wonderful surprise.) By it’s second weekend, it was not just holding strong. It was selling many of its screenings out.
Should you have already experienced Barbarian, writer-director Zach Cregger’s Airbnb-horror B-movie, then you know why it’s become an unlikely sleeper hit. If you haven’t, you’ll likely to be compelled to catch it soon out of sheer curiosity, even if you’re squeamish when it comes to watching things that go bump in the night or that creep stealthily around basements. What starts as a variation on a classic slasher premise — a resourceful young female in peril, a somewhat dodgy dude who you don’t really trust, the sense that these two reluctant housemates (both have somehow rented the same house for the same evenings) aren’t alone — morphs into something completely unexpected and firmly off the beaten track. The fact that audiences have kept mum about its particular twists and hairpin turns has fueled something close to a grassroots you-gotta-go phenomenon, one which more than made up for the studio’s begrudging theatrical release of it in the first place.
And while Barbarian‘s unexpected popularity outside of die-hard genre circles can be attributed to old-fashioned, organic word of mouth, it’s also a first-rate horror movie, full stop. Cregger started off a sketch comic, co-founding The Whitest Kids You Know, but knows exactly how to conjure up dread, utilize jump scares, and play the tension-and-release-and-oh-hey-here’s-even-more-tension game that characterize best-in-show creepfests. (We’re sensing a trend here.) Georgina Campbell, who Black Mirror fans will recognize from the “Hang the D.J.” episode, both adheres to and quietly subverts the Final Girl archetype. It‘s resident insane clown poser Bill Skarsgard keeps you wondering whether he’s friend or foe, as does the aforementioned actor who we aren’t naming out of viewer consideration. It includes a few stabs at the delayed reckoning of male toxicity and the domino effect of socioeconomic upheaval (it’s probably not a coincidence that the story takes place in Detroit, nor that a key flashback is set during the Reagan era) in addition to some quite literal stabbings.
What’s almost as remarkable as the fact that this modest yet impressive horror movie hits its mark beautifully and has found the wider audience it deserves, however, it that it’s slithered into theaters within a week or so of two other different, yet equally incredible horror films hitting screens as well. You expect a bounty of scares, or at least a bulk of movies trying to scare us, in October. The first few weeks of September? What alternate dimension did we just fall into? Far be it from genre-loving folks to question why we’ve been blessed with such abundance. We can simply give thanks that right now, it’s a particularly great moment to be a horror movie fanatic.
Before you could even catch your breath from indulging in Barbarian‘s perverse game of hide and seek, you could waltz a few doors down and check out Pearl, Ti West’s prequel to his ’70s Lone Star State slaughterfest X. A highlight in a filmmaking career filled with indie-horror obsessions and revisions, the latter movie dropped a porno film crew into the last farm on the left and watched as an elderly woman named Pearl gave new meaning to “the return of the repressed.” After the film’s premiere at SXSW this past March, West hinted that he and his star Mia Goth, doing double duty in dual X roles, had already shot a follow-up that would dive into the homicidal octogenarian’s origin story. Fast forward five months later, and voila! A throwback trailer that suggested a Technicolor Sirkus Maximus melodrama straight outta the 1950s hit the internet to much film-drunk swooning.
That mid-century Hollywood sturm und drang is a bit of a feint — the movie takes place in 1918, as a world war rages overseas and a flu epidemic cripples the U.S. (“Hard to know who anyone is today with all these masks people are wearing,” one character notes. Yes, it sure is.) And though Goth’s barely twentysomething Pearl is besotted by the moving pictures she sees when running errands in town, the cinematic references here tend to run the 1930s gamut from Busby Berkeley musicals to Universal horror to some business with a scarecrow that suggests the most fucked-up Wizard of Oz remake imaginable. No longer an axe-wielding biddy but a flower just beginning to bloom, Pearl is eager to leave behind her strict German mother, infirm father and small-town farm life for the dream-factory promises of Hollywood USA. That notion, of course, is timeless. So is the idea that any disappointment in not achieving that goal might turn the voices already in her head into a chorus shrieking, “Murder them all!” Spoiler alert: She heeds their advice.
West had pitched A24, the popular production company/distributor/film-nerd religious cult, on a franchise when he made X. (A third film is currently in the works.) But it wasn’t like he was giving them what some have derisively termed “A24 Horror” — think cerebral-pomo, auteur-driven, outside-the-box scary movies that mess with genre conventions as much as they adhere to them, à la Hereditary and The Witch and Saint Maud; just don’t call them “elevated” — when he handed over his gritty, gruesome Tobe Hooper/Wes Craven homage.
Pearl, however, splits the middle between old-school grindhouse and a textbook example of what the company does best in the arthouse horror space. It’s as much of a character study as it as a study in carnage and sharp-object bodily harm, driven both by Goth’s head-spinning performance and its knack for creative head-chopping. “It seems like there’s something missing in me that the rest of the world has,” Pearl confesses at one point, before reaching a full psychic meltdown in the form of a disturbing, dissociative-disorderly monologue. You leave admiring the film’s kills, the lingua franca of any slasher flick. What stays with you, though, is its portrait of a psychological crack turning into a chasm.
If it’s safely vague enough — is it safe? — to say that Barbarian ends with the sort of bang that you expect from a scary movie delivered by a big-name studio, it’s also worth noting that Pearl, which does not skimp on the splatter, goes out on an next-gen horror high courtesy of a bloody domestic tableau and a long close-up that, in a just world, would win Goth Streep-level accolades. West hasn’t given up on his love of cinema du grottiness, he’s just plastered shiny, vintage Americana over the rot; it’s the equivalent of seeing the friendly pharmacist in a Norman Rockwell painting handing a kid a bloody meat cleaver instead of an egg cream. What this prequel lacks in X‘s high-voltage shock, it makes up for in sheer subversiveness. How do you possibly follow this up with a third act?!
Speaking of thirds: If you’re tastes run more toward the hardcore, unflinching portraits of sociopathic behavior that’s long been a specialty of Euro-horror — if your required dosage is 10ccs of the full metal Michael Haneke — you’re in luck as well. Christian Tafdrup’s Danish movie Speak No Evil slipped into the midnight section at Sundance with almost no advance buzz and promptly put the rest of the festival’s after-hours sidebar to shame. Like Barbarian, it hit theaters right after Labor Day, before settling into its streaming perch on the horror-centric service Shudder this past weekend right as Pearl began screening for the public. And we’re not exaggerating when we say that even when you know where this nightmare is going, how it ends up getting there will continue to haunt your waking hours for months.
The premise is simple, and could not be any more innocuous or bougie: A father (Morten Burian), a mother (Sidsel Siem Koch) and their young daughter (Liva Forsberg) are vacationing in Tuscany. At the villa they’re staying at, they meet another family of three from the Netherlands. That trio’s patriarch (Fedja van Huêt) couldn’t be more gregarious; his wife (Karina Smulders) seems equally as friendly and outgoing. Their son, curiously, says nothing — the parents explain he suffers from a birth defect that’s affected his tongue. Still, the kids seem to get along, and both families spend the remainder of their trip sightseeing together. Before they each go their separate ways, the Dutch family tells the Danish clan that they must come visit them sometime soon.
Months later, a postcard arrives, reminding the Danes of the open invitation. On a whim, they accept, and are soon driving deep into the forest to stay with their hosts for a long weekend. It all seems gracious and wonderful and warm, this impromptu reunion with vacation friends, until things get a little awkward — maybe it’s, y’know, a few miniscule cultural differences that are causing a bit of unexpected friction. Then things get a little more awkward. Then very uncomfortable. And then…well, what’s that last word in the title, again?
In an interview earlier this year, Talfdrup talked about how, after his own experiences traveling abroad (“I met people I didn’t know, [who] I thought were cool…and it turned out that they were not”), he’d initially had the idea of exploring that funny feeling via a comedy. Eventually, he began to pivot toward horror as a way of opening this social satire up, at which point things naturally took a turn toward something darker. A lot darker. The natural comparison to make in regards to Speak No Evil‘s dedication to civil facades crumbling away and committing to a natural zero-mercy endgame is Haneke’s Funny Games, original recipe or extra-crispy, but even the Austrian filmmaker might throw his hands out and declare, “Hey, this might be a bit much.”
It ends more or less in the same way that Barbarian peaks, with the discovery of a room hidden away from most prying eyes and housing something best left unseen. By those respective points, however, things have progressed to too-late-now status. It’s all over but the screaming, which is well-deserved. And all you’re left with is the scars etched onto your memory banks, along with the sensation that somehow, within a few weeks in September, the genre just gave us a renaissance in miniature. Every Fall should be so lucky.