By Erik Piepenburg
Zach Cregger was recently on a hike in the woods when he saw a woman walking toward him on the path. He smiled, took his hands out of his pockets and didn’t linger as she walked by.
“To her, passing is different than it is for me,” he recalled in a recent phone interview. “I’m thinking: ‘How can I carry myself so I can indicate I mean no ill will?’”
If it sounds like Cregger is practiced in not making strangers uncomfortable, it may be because he’s atoning for making audiences deeply uncomfortable with his horror film “Barbarian.” Lifted by word-of-mouth, the $4.5 million film became a sleeper hit, taking in more than $43 million internationally since it opened in theaters in September to mostly positive reviews. The film, now streaming on HBO Max and available on demand, joins “Smile” and “Terrifier 2” as non-franchise horror movies attracting eyeballs in a standout way, in a year when the broader genre has helped keep the box office humming.
Set in a rundown section of Detroit, “Barbarian” begins as two strangers, Tess (Georgina Campbell) and Keith (Bill Skarsgard), agree to stay the night in the same rental home even though it was double-booked. Ignoring the horror movie tenet to never go in the basement, they and A.J. (Justin Long) — a director facing sexual assault accusations who later enters the picture — discover that something monstrous dwells under the house, one of the movie’s many nerve-plucking twists.
Cregger, 41, recently spoke about what inspired his film and unpacked some of its off-kilter plot details — including the spoilers. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: Where did you get the idea for your film?
A: I read “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It advises people on how better to protect themselves against threats. A portion of the book encourages women to honor their inner subconscious alarm system around indicators that men give off, like injecting nonsexual physical touch when it’s not asked for. By themselves they are not nefarious, but in concert they can be a warning that you’re with a dangerous person. I knew that men and women have different experiences of interacting with strangers but didn’t let it marinate until I read this book.
I wanted to write a scene with as many red flags that a man wouldn’t think twice about but I would say every woman would recognize. I thought of a double-booked Airbnb and a woman cohabiting there or sleeping in her car. I had no idea where it was going to go, but I wrote the movie you think you’re watching: that Keith is a bad guy. But then this giant naked lady comes out and smashes his head, and I was like, now this is interesting.
If the first part of the film is about a woman being hyper aware, and her brain is working overtime to categorize behavior and assess threat, then the inverse would be a predator with no awareness. I wanted to structure the movie as two mirror images that converge.
Q: Did you know you’d take so many detours?
A: I wanted to surprise myself. I wrote thinking this would never get made and I threw out the rule book, like a kid colors with crayons. Stephen King has this analogy, that as a writer you’re a paleontologist unveiling a fossil one bone at a time, and the fossil tells you what’s coming next. That’s a beautiful way to write.
Q: Why did you set the film in Detroit?
A: There are a lot of places this could have taken place in. Detroit’s not the only city that has swaths of blight. I happened to spend a good amount of time in Detroit, and it felt like something I knew. It was more of an intuitive story device more than any social agenda.
Q: Some people on social media have been asking why Tess goes back to save A.J. Why does she go back?
A: At the beginning, Tess says “my problem is I keep going back” to a dysfunctional relationship. She’s the child of an alcoholic — and I am the child of an alcoholic — and as a result one of the things she does is allow herself to be completely subservient to whoever she’s with. It’s a kind of infantilization. I understand people have a problem with her going back. But also, there is no movie if she doesn’t go back.
Q: People are also defending the mother monster, insisting she’s a sympathetic protector, not a villain.
A: I see her as an innocent, a person who had no behavior model other than her father’s horrific violence and this mother love that she watches on videotape. Her behavior is understandable. The best monsters, like King Kong and Leatherface, are not just evil. They’re behaving the best way they can with the tools they have.
Q: What was it about Justin Long that made you say he’s the guy to play a creepy role?
A: Justin is a charming actor who brings an inherent charisma and an openness to the role. People are inclined to like and trust him, and that makes the character of a sexual predator more insidious. I’d guess that a lot of the most successful predators are charming and likable people, and that’s why they’re able to get away with horrible things.
Q: What horror movies have you liked recently?
A: “Saint Maud” is a criminally underappreciated movie. Rose Glass was a victim of the pandemic, yet she delivered a masterpiece. If people are looking for a film similar to “Barbarian,” I’d say the biggest spiritual ancestor is Takashi Miike’s “Audition.” It has the same subversive structure, and it’s about sexual aggression and male privilege. It’s also terrifying.
Q: I’ll say. That’s a hard-core film to suggest people watch.
A: I saw it in my basement when I was a teenager. It tricked me. It lulled me into thinking it was one movie and then it punched me in the face. I felt betrayed and violated by it. I went through an experience that was deeper than watching a movie. It was so fun and radical and exciting. I love the idea that movies can be Trojan horses.