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Justin Long and Georgina Campbell as AJ and Tess trapped in a basement maze holding a flashlight in Barbarian Photo: Elena Nenkova/20th Century Studios

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Where is horror going? We asked Barbarian director Zach Cregger

Cregger and his horror-loving Whitest Kids cohort Timmy Williams talk future scares

To celebrate Polygon’s 10th anniversary, we’re rolling out a special issue: The Next 10, a consideration of what games and entertainment will become over the next decade from some of our favorite artists and writers. Here, Zach Cregger, former The Whitest Kids U’ Know comedian turned director of one of 2022’s breakout horror hits, Barbarian, sits down with his former WKUK costar Timmy Williams, representing horror fans everywhere, and deputy editor Matt Patches, who just so happened to work on WKUK years before joining the Polygon team, to talk about the past, present, and future of scaring the shit out of people.

Matt Patches: To talk about the next 10 years of horror, I think we need to talk about the last few years of horror. Zach, I saw your Letterboxd list of inspirations for Barbarian, and it was unsurprisingly filled with hard-to-dethrone classics. But has anything come close? What movies will we still talk about in 10 years?

Zach Cregger: Timmy, tell me what you think about this: To me, ’90s horror was not great. There are obvious exceptions, like The Blair Witch Project, which is an exceptional, miraculously good movie. But I’d say Scream, which is a great movie, started a trend of just putting hot faces on covers. So it’s like, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, which is OK — but this trend of movies of hot, young kids getting picked off one by one, very glossy, cleanly lit, studio horror movies. That did not start the new millennium on the right foot.

Timmy Williams: And it burned itself out pretty quickly.

Zach: Weirdly, the movie I think that really disrupted everything was Insidious. Maybe both James Wan movies, The Conjuring and Insidious, but I believe Insidious was independently made, and it really worked. It made a ton of money. And it was a weird original horror movie that was not about hot college kids. Then comes Get Out, obviously. So it’s like, if Insidious is… I’m trying to think of a punk rock metaphor here. Get Out would be the Sex Pistols... or maybe Insidious is the Sex Pistols, and Get Out as the Velvet Underground? OK, who gives a shit.

Timmy: Maybe someone’s MC5?

Zach: The point is Get Out blew the doors open.

Timmy: I wasn’t a horror fan all of my life. But when I went through a divorce, I got into dark shit, and I needed to take care of these feelings by watching horror movies. Then Get Out came out, and it was like, Oh, shit, this is like a totally new kind of horror. It wasn’t afraid to be funny, and it wasn’t pretentious. There has been some other horror in recent years that has felt a bit stuffy, but Get Out really opened the door for auteurs to do their thing in the genre, and even working with studios.

Zach: Barbarian is very much an independent movie that only later became a studio movie — it was created and funded and filmed as an independent movie. But Get Out kicked the doors open. And then we get Hereditary and The Witch and these new kind of horror movies that are not your typical horror thing, but to a broader audience, feel really exciting.

I think we can pretty much agree Hereditary is like Mount Everest-level for this last decade, yet there’s still a lot of people online like, “Call me crazy, but I think Hereditary sucks.” It’s a polarizing movie, which I think is part of its appeal. Saint Maud really belongs in that conversation, too — not enough people saw it. I think it was a victim of the pandemic. But Saint Maud belongs on that pedestal with Hereditary and Get Out.

that sick part in hereditary where the guy’s body is covered in ants as he lays dead in bed
The elevated ant horror of Hereditary
Photo: Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Matt: We’re raising an interesting point here, about “horror people.” Like the last 10 years, the next 10 will probably see a greater expansion beyond the core audience that will literally watch every Hellraiser direct-to-video sequel out of compulsion. But those people love, love, love this genre — is there any fear that they’ll get left behind? Are these new horror movies still for “horror people”?

Timmy: I think it is “yes.”

Zach: I went to a horror trivia night in Burbank, like a month and a half ago, right after Barbarian came out. Everybody there had a black T-shirt with a horror movie on it. And the questions they were asking, I swear to God, I knew like two out of 50 of these questions. I was just like, “Oh, I thought I knew what was up with horror. I know nothing.” There are real deep, deep fans. One of the questions was like, “Carol Anne is the name of the girl from the original Poltergeist movie. What was the name of the little girl in the Poltergeist remake?” And I was like, “How the fuck would I know that?”

Timmy: I definitely count myself as someone who dorks out about that level of deep-diving, but on the edge: I’m not watching remakes. I’m not watching Hellraiser 10, the one where it looks like they got rid of whatshisname and got the guy who looks like Bobby Moynihan.

Zach: But yeah, we know there are hardcore horror heads, but they seem to be very happy in 2022. The genre hasn’t abandoned its core, it’s just attracted a lot more people that would not necessarily think about horror movies to get on board and get on the horror train. I think that’s awesome.

Matt: There’s been a lot of chatter about filmmakers dabbling in horror just to get a movie made in the year 2022. As viewers, and Zach, as a maker, how do you feel about that? Is it democratized in a good way, or could it somehow dilute the genre?

Timmy: “Democratized” is a good term because I think, like Zach says, the genre’s just gonna keep expanding. There will always be low-budget stuff made by people who love to make weird little horror movies. And yes, you are also going to get more people who haven’t made those before, but weird outliers can go in the other direction. Look at Guillermo Del Toro. Sometimes his projects stick with big audiences and sometimes they don’t, but he just gets to keep doing his shit. There seems like just enough of a base in horror fandom alone for him to keep doing his thing.

Zach: You know what my favorite movie of his is? Nightmare Alley. Horrific! It’s so good.

Matt: It’s really gross, in a good way. But it did not click with audiences. Would it have played better if it had felt more (or even been sold more) like a capital-h Horror Movie? Do we think storytellers need to make horror movies just to be seen?

Zach: No, no way. I don’t feel like horror is the necessary gateway to becoming a filmmaker. I mean, I’m thinking about Alma Har’el, who made Honey Boy — there are just a lot of very compelling independent filmmakers that break through by telling stories with a strong perspective.

The only genre I feel like that has really died on the vine is comedy. They don’t make any anymore! Bros was an unfortunate flop, which sucks — it feels like that is just not what audiences are after right now. So I’m skeptical that horror is here to stay in the way it is right now, where it’s so healthy. The pendulum can swing.

Timmy: And not every indie is going to be Terrifier 2 just because it has a creepy clown.

Zach: Terrifier and Terrifier 2 — the joy of those movies is his willingness to go find the line and go five steps beyond it. And that’s why you buy a ticket to that movie; you’re never going to see anything like that again. It is so hardcore.

A man in a black and white clown outfit and makeup leaning against a doorframe, splattered with blood and smiling.
Art the Clown just clowning around in Terrifier 2
Image: Screambox

Matt: Is horror so healthy, and comedy so limp, because it’s more acceptable to be extreme in the sandbox of horror?

Zach: I don’t think horror has to be extreme to succeed. I don’t think Barbarian is an extreme movie.

Matt: Barbarian has a scene where an old lady who lives in a basement’s tit hangs out and waggles in a man’s face.

Zach: Is that extreme? I don’t think that’s very extreme.

Matt: OK, I suppose newborn babies see a lot of that.

Timmy: I would say it’s not extreme. I’d say there’s definitely stuff in your movie that people haven’t seen before. Namely, tit horror. I think I explained it to my mom before the movie came out, and we settled on that she was never going to see it. This woman had nursed six people. She was like, “Oh my God.”

Zach: The truth is, after COVID, streaming fractured everything and our attention has been pulled in all these new ways. Like, what’s the point of getting in my car and driving and paying for an overpriced thing? Going to the theater is expensive once you get drinks and popcorn and all that stuff! And sitting to look at a screen... I look at screens all day. There are a million new things for me to look at. So, why do I need to go to the theater to see it? Horror offers this collective experience, the vibration in the room when you’re all together feeling fear, and it’s so much more powerful than when you’re just watching it at home on your TV or, God forbid, your laptop. So as the theater experience becomes more and more anemic and more and more self selecting, the one thing that you cannot get at home is that collective fear.

Matt: Zach, I know Barbarian was made independently, but are producers or studios making suggestions for what a horror movie needs to be to be successful? Is there a checklist these days that will shape this genre in the future?

Zach: I only hear it needs to be fun and scary. That’s the beauty of horror — it can come in almost any package. That’s why Terrifier 2 is just as valid as Smile. You’re just chasing the dopamine hit. One of my favorite horror movies is this movie Bad Ben that was made for $300 by one guy who’s probably late 40s, early 50s, in his house by himself in I think New Jersey. And it’s just a dude with a video camera and no one else for 300 bucks. And it’s intense. That guy just figured out a cool way to frame shots that gave me dread. Horror is only getting more creative.

Matt: Did you guys see Host, Shudder’s Zoom movie?

Timmy: I loved it. And, you know, earlier, Zach, you said, God forbid people are watching on their laptop — I mostly agree with you except for Host. I watched it on my laptop with my headphones on, and I was like, “I’m part of this Zoom call.” I got on a found footage kick this summer and I watched Unfriended. There are some kills in Unfriended that are fucked up!

Zach: I would add We’re All Going to the World’s Fair as found footage that is still finding new things to do in that space.

Multiple windows of a Skype conference call filled with bizarre and threatening images in Host.
The laptop-approved horror of Host
Image: Shudder

Matt: Horror just has the elasticity. And yet, in the last few years, we’ve still ended up with the term “elevated horror.”

Zach: I just don’t really see it as a useful term.

Timmy: It’s unnecessary.

Zach: It seems to imply that the rest of the genre is not elevated, meaning it’s somehow subpar. I definitely don’t think a Barbarian is elevated.

Timmy: No, you embrace a kind of B-movie quality. Maybe pulpiness is the word. I mean, the whole concept of the guy raping people for years and creating these weird monsters is…

Zach: It’s not elevated!

Timmy: I remember when Us came out, Jordan Peele tweeted that the movie was definitively a horror movie because people started calling it an elevated thriller.

Zach: Look at Scream. Scream has good acting. That’s not elevated.

Matt: Here’s a theory: Maybe “elevated horror” has overtaken this era because movies of late haven’t put up any indelible horror icons. I assume the fear is, if it’s not elevated, it’s disposable. We don’t have many candidates for “the next Freddy” or “the next Jason.” The closest mainstream creeper in the canon might be... the Babadook?

Zach: Art the Clown from Terrifier might get there.

Timmy: That’s definitely one. But there just haven’t been many horror movies focused around one person. We’ve seen a lot more cults and supernatural terror that’s a bit more nebulous, not just a physical manifestation. We’re almost at a point where making jokes about horror movies being about trauma is almost hack, because there have been so many horror movies about trauma. Barbarian had plenty to chew on; there was stuff there, but there was still slashing, in the slasher sense.

But now they’re bringing Friday the 13th back, and making a new Saw with Jigsaw. I will say the thing I love about those movies is the absolutely insane amount of convoluted plot. More movies where a dude sets up plans that were meant to take place 20 years after he died.

Zach: But that’s the thing. It’s like, it doesn’t matter! I will say, I do have a soft spot for the Final Destination movies. They’re just so stupid, but so smart. You just get to watch these crazy Rube Goldberg machines, and it’s joyful and playful and spooky — you can forgive so much.

Image: 20th Century Studios

Matt: I think that’s why Final Destination had a successful franchise run, which is weirdly not something you see a ton of these days. There have not been many newly minted franchises either. But maybe that’s not the business. Zach, when Barbarian revved up and it was clearly a hit, did you get the sense that executives immediately went looking for “the next Barbarian”?

Zach: I think so. I have producing partners who tell me that they get sent scripts now, and a lot of times, the call that comes with the script is, “We think this could be like the next Barbarian.” So that’s exciting. Smile is in the same boat. Like that’s a movie made for $17, maybe $20 million that did $200 million worldwide. Then there’s the Terrifier success story. Definitely people are talking about all of it. The iron is hot.

Matt: What will people want? Will there be executives shouting, “More old women in horror movies!” into phones?

Zach: I think next year we’re simply going to see a lot more horror movies. Just by the odds, most of them probably won’t be that great.

Timmy: Zach, I know you hate this, and you’re probably so sick of when people bring up Malignant in the same breath as your movie, but these are two movies that have a big, fun left turn. Do you think that’s going to be something that people keep trying to push?

Zach: Yeah, maybe! And honestly, that would be great. Let’s get more movies that take big swings and narrative chances.

Timmy: Yeah, what if getting surprised again becomes the trend? I will say, we’re talking about bigger movies, but you guys mentioned Shudder earlier, and I love Shudder. I accidentally subscribed to it for a year when I was just trying to watch the Joe Bob marathon back in 2018 and I never stopped.

Zach: I love Shudder. It’s the one streaming service I feel like I would miss the most if I lost it.

Timmy: They’re putting out new original shit like four or five times a month. Deadstream was fucking fantastic. It’s basically like Evil Dead with a dickhead twitch streamer and a —

Zach: Emphasis on dick.

Timmy: But it works for me! I think the reason they did that and the reason it works is because he gets put through the fucking ringer, and he deserves every bit that he gets. And it all feels like a gamble to tell that kind of story. It’s kind of why it’s fun watching Justin Long get his fucking head pulled apart in Barbarian.

Matt: One of 2022’s top moments, frankly. Has me thinking about one more important question about the future of horror: Is it hard to come up with ways to kill people that don’t feel repetitive? What a challenge!

Zach: Yes! I mean, for example, the Justin [Long] kill — you know, that was one I had to think of like two days before, because the kill I had in my head, I realized in practical terms we were not going to get to pull off. Originally, she squeezed his neck so tight that his blood spurted out of his ears, eyes, nose, and mouth like one of those squeeze dolls. Really wanted it to gush, like a faucet. We couldn’t build it. So I had to rethink it with two days till we were ready to shoot it. So we went through thumbs in the eye hole, giving her leverage to pull the head apart.

Matt: I would imagine the technology required to crush someone’s head or dismember them has improved over the years.

Zach: Not really. I’ll tell you this: My rule for Barbarian was not to use anything John Carpenter didn’t have access to on The Thing. We violated that rule a little bit; some of the seams in the mother’s prosthetics were painted out digitally to make it look a little smoother because you could see where her breasts were glued on. But beyond that, it’s all practical. And I think it’s better for it. In a way, technology has taken horror down a couple of notches. I can always tell when I’m seeing CGI, and it always takes me out of it. Whereas a shitty practical effect still feels more real to me.

Timmy: CGI blood and faked squibs are hard to take seriously. As a viewer, I like disgusting gore made for fucking 10 bucks. Like, I think Evil Dead 2, or Evil Dead — it’s like colored cottage cheese or something. You can still do that.

Zach: The best onscreen movie violence I’ve ever seen, though, is the fire extinguisher in Irreversible. And I think there is some computer VFX in there. But it’s just done so well that you kind of can’t tell.

Matt: The next 10 years will see an entirely different generation age into being the core horror audience. That attention is already there for Barbarian; the measuring tape scene is all over TikTok.

Zach: Wait, what do they say?

Matt: People have lost their minds over how long Justin’s measuring tape is.

Zach: Like that the tape is too long?

Matt: He just keeps going into the cave with the tape.

Zach: That’s funny. I also never even considered that would be something anyone would care about.

Timmy: They’re having fun talking about it because it’s such a fucking fun scene and silly. But I just need to say I once worked at a carpeting warehouse and you can get some long-ass measuring tapes.

Matt: So the whole viral moment thing makes me wonder: Will horror need to change for kids who have grown up online? Will the scare tactics change, or even work?

Zach: Horror is evergreen.

Matt: We don’t have to be worried about this?

Zach: Nope. They’re going to figure it out.

Timmy: They’re going to find new ways to do it, new ways in. Being scared is a very base emotion. It’s been going on since fucking cavemen at campfires… whatever the caveman version of horror is.

Zach: “Tell me again about when the tiger almost ate you.” Horror.

Barbarian is currently streaming on HBO Max. For more of the WKUK gang, check out the group’s Twitch streams.