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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

Horror Never Dies: ‘X,’ ‘Barbarian,’ & ‘Smile’ (2022)

Directed by: Ti West [1], Zach Cregger [2], Parker Finn [3] || Produced by: Ti West, Jacob Jaffke, Kevin Turen, Harrison Kreiss [1], Arnon Milchan, Roy Lee, Raphael Margules, J. D. Lifshitz [2], Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner, Robert Salerno, Gabby Olivera [3]

Screenplay by: Ti West [1], Zach Cregger [2], Parker Finn [3] || Starring: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Owen Campbell Stephen Ure, Scott Mescudi [1], Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgard, Justin Long [2], Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan [3]

Music by: Tyler Bates, Chelsea Wolf [1], Anna Drubich [2], Cristobal Tapia de Veer [3] || Cinematography: Eliot Rockett [1], Zach Kuperstein [2], Charlie Sarroff [3] || Edited by: David Kashevaroff, Ti West [1], Joe Murphy [2], Elliot Greenberg [3] || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 106-115 minutes || 1 = X, 2 = Barbarian, 3 = Smile

When I glance at the theatrical landscape today, I see at most three types of movies: Large to gigantic ($100-250 million) budgeted, FX-driven blockbusters distributed by major film studios (e.g. your superhero franchises, Fast & the Furious [2001-], Avatar [2009, 2022], your latest Tom Cruise production, 3D animated family movies, etc.), small to modest-budgeted awards-bait dramas (e.g. longwinded period-pieces, overindulgent biopics, ethnic suffering flicks) designed to net their parent companies, cast, & crew artistic street cred & paparazzi buzz (today the kids call it “going viral”) even if they often lose money, and horror movies. Horror filmmaking, from the tiniest budgeted, sleazy grindhouse-homage (e.g. Saw [2004]) to the slickest big studio productions (e.g. It [2017, 2019]; The Conjuring [2013, 2016, 2021]), has been a consistent box office draw for decades now, perhaps due to their visceral cinematic inclination, their equitable gender-appeal, sheer profitability, or some combination thereof. Through the rise of “shared cinematic universes,” big and small, to the modern expansion of online streaming media platforms, the latter of which now provide a more nourishing home for pure action, thriller, western, crime drama, comedy, and science-fiction movies than the cineplexes, horror has endured.

2022 alone has seen a plethora of diverse, creative scary movies that constitute some of the most profitable theatrical projects of the year, three of which I’d like to highlight today: X, Barbarian, and Smile. The former, X, is the latest feature by independent filmmaker, Ti West, and his first horror project since 2013’s The Sacrament, not to mention his first slasher. I’ve made no secret of my less than favorable opinions of the man’s early work (e.g. The Roost [2005], House of the Devil [2009], The Innkeepers [2011]), but was persuaded by the movie’s effective marketing campaign, southeast Texas setting (that’s where I conduct my wildlife research!), and gruesome subgenre, the latter a rarity in mainstream horror since at least the 2000s.

Top: Mia Goth under heavy makeup stalks… Mia Goth with somewhat less makeup in X. Bottom: Georgina Campbell pulls on a rope she probably shouldn’t have in Barbarian.

A grungy, stylized treatise on the intersection of pornography and religious fundamentalism in the American Deep South, 1970s exploitation cinema, and yes, 1980s slasher movies, X is the first movie by West I’ve seen that does justice to its retro setting and characters. The movie is set in 1979 just outside the Houston metropolitan area, where our skeevy yet realistic ensemble cast (Mia Goth, Jenny Ortega, Brittany Snow, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Scott Mescudi) rent a farm guesthouse to shoot a low-budget porno incognito (hence the title). Unbeknownst to them, the elderly couple (Goth double cast as a murderous villainess, Stephen Ure as her trigger-happy husband) who own the farmland react to the discovery of their tenant’s project with homicidal tendencies.

Equal parts exploitative and sultry, X takes far better advantage of its New Zealand location backdrop to pass as a rural American setting than The Power of the Dog (2021) ever did, and its cast portray a wide range of interesting yet dirty, filthy, smutty, crude (*fumbles thesaurus*), lewd, risqué characters well in both dramatic and horror sequences. Goth makes the most waves as heroine and principal antagonist, and writer-producer-director West arranges a creative series of kills between her and costar Ure.

Barbarian, the breakout genre picture of longtime comedian and sitcom actor, Zach Cregger, is your classic “spooky basement” premise elevated by its well paced, nontraditional structure that shifts gears, or narrative point-of-view rather, every act. Much has been made in critical reviews, online message boards, and the film’s clever trailers that “the less you know going in, the better!” But in reality, this oddly mistitled spooky picture (the story has nothing to do with millennia old Germania and should’ve been called The Basement) is rather straightforward and best enjoyed as a relatable yet nightmare satire of an Airbnb stay gone wrong.

Barbarian sees lead Georgina Campbell visit the city of Detroit, Michigan for a job interview, but discovers her rented remote household is not at all what she expected. Shot mostly in Bulgaria with some exterior wide shots of Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, Barbarian is the third noteworthy horror movie I can recall set in the Motor City in recent years after It Follows (2014) & Don’t Breathe (2016), taking advantage of the until recently bankrupt city’s urban decay and Rust Belt stereotypes; the movie flaunts its diegetic and physical location-photography, like the aforementioned X and unlike so many generic films shot in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, or Atlanta, to enhance its unsettling tone and heighten narrative tension, .

Last and my favorite of this bunch, Parker Finn’s Smile is 2022’s spiritual successor to the aforementioned It Follows and The Ring (1998, 2002), another piece of effective supernatural horror based around a contagious demonic curse. An extension of Finn’s short film called Laura Hasn’t Slept (2020) and his feature directorial debut, Smile’s central premise of a persistent, enigmatic demon that converses with and taunts its victims also recalls the 1998 flop thriller, Fallen, a weird fantasy-crime drama hybrid starring Denzel Washington. In both Smile and Fallen, the central demonic threat transmits from person to person and is dependent on tormenting its protagonist (Sosie Bacon in Smile) to survive. Their endings are alike as well.

Smile sticks to its main character’s perspective religiously, utilizing hallucinations, dream sequences, and the most diverse collection of jump-scares I’ve seen in a while to create a nonstop aura of anxiety, dread, and inevitable doom. The movie’s traditionalist format and reliance on the aforementioned genre cliches is superseded by Parker’s execution, his omniscient camera presence, Dutch angles, and dizzying birds-eye establishing shots that recall camera movements from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Apostle (2018), and The Empty Man (2020). The viewer oftentimes anticipates these nightmarish images and sound FX coming from a mile away, but that’s by design to make the overarching demonic threat feel that much crueler.

Yikes! Smile somehow lands every one of its jump scares despite telegraphing them from a mile away.

Most purebred, mid-budgeted genre pictures, from heady sci-fi to Judd Apatow comedies to shoot-’em-up action extravaganzas, have been chased out of the modern theatrical ecosystem, regardless of quality, by the aforementioned major studio heavyweights — except for horror. Movies like X, Barbarian, and Smile are just a subsample of the latest wave of successful, profitable scary movies that are often far more cinematic than your average CGI-laden blockbuster or your typical self-important Oscar-bait. Whether you’re in the mood for a 1970s era slasher period-piece (X), a don’t-go-into-the-basement(!) haunted house adventure (Barbarian), or a good ole-fashioned demonic curse that “may or may not be about trauma” (Smile), you can’t go wrong with cinematic entertainment this Halloween.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I don’t know how much longer theatrical horror can keep its current streak, but the genre has lasted longer than westerns and may well outlast superhero blockbusters if it maintains a median quality benchmark of X, Barbarian, and Smile. The former has creative kills, an effective retro-setting, and memorable characters; Barbarian recreates the best basement scares of your youth within a distinct Midwestern urban aesthetic, and the latter recreates the best stylistic motifs of old-school “pathogenic demons” via David Fincher-esque visuals.

However… you’ll need to shower after watching XBarbarian’s name makes no sense and its “narrative twists” are overblown, and Smile never intends to rise above its jump-scare bread and butter.

—> RECOMMENDED, all!

? I’m not crazy, OK? I’m a fucking PhD candidate!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

Am I spot on? Am I full of it? Let me know!

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