Justin Long's Barbarian Character Reminded Him Of Steve Martin's The Jerk

This post contains spoilers for "Barbarian."

Zach Cregger's "Barbarian" is a wild horror ride that blindsides the audience on multiple occasions. If you go in completely cold (and you should), it's hard to get a handle on where the film is headed. When Cregger abruptly cuts from the basement dungeon where our ostensible protagonist (Georgina Campbell) is being held captive by a shrieking, sheet-white humanoid of unknown origin to a car zipping along Southern California's Pacific Coast Highway, in which Justin Long's hotshot Hollywood actor discovers he's being fired from his TV show due to a rape allegation from a co-star, the narrative whiplash is palpable. It's at this point that Cregger's film feels capable of going anywhere at any given second. In an age of cookie-cutter studio entertainments, it's a joy to see a wide, mainstream release go positively nutzoid.

While Long's introduction is invigoratingly jarring in a storytelling fashion, it is disconcerting, after the tightrope walk of the first act between Campbell's character and her unexpected housemate (Bill Skarsgård), to be thrust into the life of a seemingly unrepentant sexual predator. He's a jerk, but a canny, confident one desperate to talk his way out of a career-ending crime. And yet, once he gets to the Detroit house he's been renting out as an Airbnb, he briefly transforms into a highly amusing clown.

Your horror show of horror shows

Because Cregger has already introduced us to the monster — which we later learn is a woman who has been abused her entire life by a serial rapist — lurking in the house's labyrinthine basement, the sight of Long's character cavalierly exploring the subterranean expanse with a tape measure in order to raise the price-per-square-foot value of the property is fraught with tension. And because Long is a skilled comedic actor, the sequence provokes a series of nervous titters.

In an interview with GQ, Long admits that he didn't initially understand why Cregger kept shooting footage of his character cheerfully bopping around the basement. It wasn't until he watched "Barbarian" with an audience that he understood what his director was going for, and it reminded him of some decidedly un-horrific movies:

"Zach knew how aware the audience would be of the impending danger surrounding that area and how funny it would be with somebody being so glib and careless in that space. The juxtaposition is the funny thing and that takes a mind who knows horror, but it also takes a gifted comedic mind to mine as much of that as you can. Those comedy swings remind me of stuff from the '80s, Carl Reiner or Frank Oz movies where there were longer setups for single joke payoffs. I was thinking about 'The Jerk' specifically. Not to sound old, but I don't really see that in movies anymore."

A delightfully disorienting exercise in terror

This is a fascinating comparison, one that makes me wish I could see a grungy, 1979 gore-fest version starring Steve Martin at the height of his wild-and-crazy-guy popularity. You think "Barbarian" is jarring now? Imagine Martin following up "The Muppet Movie" with this.

I'm still not sure "Barbarian" adds up to much thematically, but the ease with which Cregger manages wildly different tones makes him a genre director to watch. We need filmmakers who know horror movies inside and out to take wild swings with material like this. Formula slasher flicks have their place, but movies like "Barbarian," James Wan's "Malignant" and Ti West's "X" are the bright, brutal future of the form.