A Walk Through the ‘Barbarian’ Basement With Zach Cregger

The writer and director of the twisty horror film “Barbarian” discusses its secrets while addressing some of the online chatter.

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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.

Where did you get the idea for your film?

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.

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