M3GAN And Barbarian Are Absurd Horror Movies For Absurd Times

This piece contains spoilers for "M3GAN" and "Barbarian."

Horror movies that don't play themselves completely straight are nothing new. We have seen these blends of horror and comedy from even the earliest days of the genre — like Universal's films revolving around comedy duo Abbott and Costello meeting their Classic Monsters. However, as the so-called "elevated horror" (please hear my sarcasm) subgenre rose in fame, there arguably became a more mainstream need for self-aware and comedic horror, which had increasingly been relegated to the indie circuit.

Thankfully, this type of horror is coming back in a big way thanks to some high-profile releases. 20th Century Studios had a runaway hit on their hands with the bonkers "Barbarian," while Universal and Blumhouse leaned into Internet meme culture while promoting the newly-released "M3GAN." These are admittedly two very different movies, but they both share a similarly cynical view of modern American society. It just so happened that the best way to convey this view is by cranking up the absurdity to an 11.

I thought we were having a conversation

"M3GAN" seems to have been tailor-made to debut at this exact moment. If you were to head over to Twitter right now, you'll likely stumble across discourse over the ethics of A.I.-generated art on the timeline. The current virtual water cooler discussions as of late have been centered on the argument that art created by artificial intelligence is "the future" and actually helps artists be more productive in their daily lives. Regardless of your stance on the matter, this argument isn't so different from the pitch made to the Funki board members in "M3GAN," where she is promised to help alleviate the stress of parents by helping raise their children. This begs an important question — why is productivity based on the capital our work generates, but dismissed when we're trying to care for ourselves or others, especially children?

A similar criticism of our obsession with capitalist grind shines through in "Barbarian." To help pay for the legal costs accruing from a rape accusation, AJ (Justin Long) decides to sell off one of his Airbnb properties for as much money as possible. It doesn't matter that the neighborhood is the victim of gentrification, or that there are unhoused people in the neighborhood looking for a place to stay. As long as he keeps renting or selling properties, none of that is his problem. This reflects what researchers and outlets such as Forbes have written about how short-term rental companies such as Airbnb have contributed to skyrocketing rent in active markets. Unfortunately, the real-life landlords of these houses will likely never get their comeuppance from a monster trapped in the basement.

This is perfectly natural

Of course, "M3GAN" is not entirely about our reliance on technology destroying human connection, nor is "Barbarian" entirely about how the proliferation of vacation rental properties hurts communities. These films have several other themes that we could discuss, but how they both satirize how downright weird late-stage capitalism is perhaps the most poignant in our current time. In what feels like a response to the trauma-inspired rise of elevated horror, "M3GAN" and "Barbarian" find terror in the social and economic causes of said trauma.

At the same time, however, they can't help but poke fun at how ridiculous these causes are on the surface. There is no need for genuine debates over whether self-sufficient A.I. can be safe or if it's a good idea to gamify the housing market through short-term rentals because the answers should be pretty cut and dry. Unfortunately, because American capitalism incentivizes productivity and quantity over all else, these debates are forced to happen. And when these debates are held, they inspire art whose messages should have been the general consensus in a world where profit wasn't the most important thing in the world. Sure, the art in question involves dancing dolls and head-smashing mothers, but they certainly have more heart and passion put into them than anything produced by an algorithm.