When Get Out premiered in 2017 to universal acclaim, writer-director Jordan Peele announced himself as a major cinematic talent making a seamless transition from comedy to horror. But while Peele’s mainstream success was more than earned—and backed up with excellent follow-ups in Us and Nope—he wasn’t breaking the wheel as much as he was underscoring how horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin. (Hell, several Key & Peele sketches were undeniably creepy; “Make-A-Wish” still gives me the chills.) If anything, Peele’s emergence as one of his generation’s most promising auteurs has made it easier to buy into other comedians pivoting to horror.
Best known as one of the founding members of the comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U’ Know, Zach Cregger isn’t exactly a name you’d associate with horror. But just as Peele’s career trajectory changed overnight after Get Out, all signs point to Cregger having a similar breakout with Barbarian, which arrived in theaters over the weekend. With an initial setup of two strangers accidentally double-booked at an Airbnb in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood, Barbarian seems like a by-the-numbers thriller until one of the characters discovers a hidden passageway in the rental’s basement. From there, Barbarian emerges as a worthy successor to James Wan’s Malignant for the title of WTF Studio Movie of the Year™. And just like Malignant’s Gabriel, a parasitic twin living on the back of a woman’s skull who can take control of her body, the true star of Barbarian is a memorable monstrosity that is sure to generate discussion and dank memes.
(This is a final warning: Barbarian is about to be spoiled in its entirety. Unless you’re the type of person who’s too scared to watch a horror movie and would rather read the Wikipedia plot summary—also known as the Harvilla Method—I highly recommend experiencing Barbarian for yourself. OK, time to go down into the basement.)
After one of the Airbnb guests, Tess (Georgina Campbell), accidentally locks herself in the basement, she finds a secret passageway to a room with just a dinky mattress, a camera, a bucket, and a bloody handprint on the wall. By the time the other guest, Keith (Bill Skarsgard), returns to the rental and helps free Tess from the basement, she’s planning to get the hell out of Dodge. But Keith believes she’s overreacting and heads down to check it out for himself. (Hey, bad idea!) Naturally, when Tess calls out to Keith for an update, he doesn’t answer and she decides to go back down to look for him. (Hey, also a bad idea!) That’s when Tess uncovers a hidden passageway behind the hidden passageway: a stairwell that ominously leads underground. In the depths of this highly questionable Airbnb is an elaborate tunnel system, which houses some rusty cages, food bowls, and [deep breath] a feral naked woman with the strength of an Olympic bodybuilder. Yes, you read that correctly.
Ideally, this would be the kind of thing you’d put in a rental listing—watch out for the giant naked lady who lives underneath the house—but Tess learns about her the hard way. (Tess also sees the woman’s strength firsthand when she bashes poor Keith’s head against one of the tunnel walls until it turns to mush.) It’s at this point that, like Tess, the audience starts thinking to themselves, “What the fuck?!” It’s an understandable reaction—this is a sharp left turn! Thankfully, the rest of the film does, slowly, provide a disturbing backstory for the tunnel system and its horrifying inhabitant.
You see, back in the ’80s, the home was owned by a guy named Frank (Richard Brake), who would kidnap unsuspecting women and keep them imprisoned in his basement. Frank would then rape these women, deliver their babies, and procreate even further with his own offspring. Fast-forward a few decades, and the creature living in the tunnels—which IMDb calls “the Mother,” who is played by Matthew Patrick Davis—is the product of all this rape and inbreeding. As for what motivates Mother—she kidnaps anyone she finds and tries to raise them as her own child. If you resist Mother’s [clears throat] parental urges, well, let’s just say you will end up like Keith—or more accurately, whatever’s left of him.
So there you have it: Barbarian hinges on an outrageous twist that was mercifully absent from the movie’s marketing and will completely shock moviegoers. It’s no wonder, then, that Barbarian has been drawing so many comparisons to Malignant, which gave off the vibe of a humdrum Conjuring knockoff until Gabriel was unleashed in all his ridiculous glory. I wouldn’t be surprised if both films are hailed as cult classics in the decades to come—serving as reminders that even IP-obsessed studios can drop something absolutely bonkers.
In the meantime, though, I can’t stop thinking about Mother and Gabriel. I’d be praying for a Freddy vs. Jason-esque crossover if Barbarian and Malignant were from the same studio—care to collab, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Studios?—but since that probably isn’t going to happen, let’s settle for the next-best thing: a movie monster showdown. Using an extremely scientific five-category rubric, I will determine whether Mother or Gabriel stands a better chance of being hailed as the next horror icon. Let’s dive in.
As if smashing in the face of the actor who played Pennywise the Clown wasn’t enough of a hint, Mother is stronger than your average human. Unless you’re built like the Mountain from Game of Thrones, your best bet is to run away or, if she catches you, play along with her fantasy of being a mom. Unfortunately, based on what happens to the third protagonist introduced in Barbarian—the unwitting owner of the rental, AJ, played by Justin Long—that means Mother will forcefully feed you her breast milk. (I cannot believe this movie was technically released by Disney.)
Moving on to Gabriel: Even though he shares a body and skull with Madison (Annabelle Wallis), his conjoined twin sister, my guy has proved to be just as formidable. He efficiently kills all the doctors responsible for surgically removing the majority of his body—they couldn’t take out all of him without killing Madison—and, in what may be the pinnacle of cinema, hurls a chair across a police station to knock out two detectives.
I have never personally tried to throw a chair like I was competing in the shot put, but the degree of difficulty seems pretty high.
Verdict: A toss-up, both swole.
For most of Malignant, Gabriel is built up as an almost supernatural force of evil before we get a real glimpse of him. Madison even refers to Gabriel as “the devil.” It all makes for quite a discombobulating experience when the audience learns that Gabriel has literally been part of Madison all along. But while a second face on the back of someone’s head is jarring, once you get over the initial shock, Gabriel’s existence doesn’t necessarily elicit fear. He’s basically a tumor with a grudge. And let me tell you, when a police sketch artist drew Gabriel, I wasn’t scared—I couldn’t stop laughing.
Conversely, Mother is pure nightmare fuel. For one, there is something inherently creepy about people being naked in movies when sex isn’t involved. (I was holding it together throughout Hereditary until a bunch of naked cultists started showing up at the house; please put some clothes on for your demonic worship sessions!) And once you get over the fact that Mother doesn’t have a wardrobe, she looks like one of the humanoid cave monsters from The Descent, which is (a) awesome and (b) terrifying as shit.
Verdict: Mother, may I … give you an advantage over Gabriel?
Horror movie villains don’t always need to be sympathetic (see: Michael Myers), but it adds an interesting dimension when you can find ways to empathize with the characters’ situation. Gabriel didn’t seem like a good twin before most of his mangled form was surgically removed from Madison, but perhaps that hostility stemmed from not having a body to call his own. It wasn’t until Madison’s abusive husband smashed her head against a wall at the start of Malignant that Gabriel was even able to retake control—imagine being trapped for most of your life without any agency. Of course, Gabriel didn’t exactly help his cause when he tried to trick Madison into stabbing their mom during their childhood. Gabriel’s circumstances are a little sad, but time and again he demonstrated that he’s a bit of an asshole.
Therefore, between the two characters, I’m much more sympathetic toward Mother. I don’t know how many generations of rape and incest came before her in Barbarian, but it goes without saying that her life underground was awful. The fact that Mother opts to kidnap people and raise them instead of going straight for the kill also shows how she has a nurturing side that never had a chance to blossom. And while the methods she uses to care for someone are certainly questionable—kidnapping and forcing someone to drink your breast milk isn’t ideal!—she does prove to have genuine maternal instincts. Near the end of the film, when Tess is shoved off the top of a water tower by AJ, who tries to use the moment as a distraction to escape, Mother leaps down to rescue her. The sequence is both absurd—picture a naked woman jumping off a water tower like a fucking superhero—and oddly moving. Like a true mom, she put the well-being of her “child” ahead of her own.
Verdict: I wouldn’t go so far as to nominate her for Mother of the Year, but given the circumstances surrounding her existence, Mother could’ve been a whole lot worse. And she’s definitely a more sympathetic creature than Gabriel.
If this category was solely about racking up a body count, Gabriel would win in a landslide. Setting aside the doctors he killed in his quest for revenge, he slaughters a bunch of fellow prisoners in a holding cell and nearly an entire Seattle police precinct. It’s worth the price of admission alone, and I will cherish these gnarly moments in Malignant like they were my own children.
But we’re not just concerned about quantity: Quality matters, too. And while Mother kills only three characters in Barbarian, she makes every one of them count. We’ve already addressed what happened to Keith, but Mother saves her best kills for the end of the movie. After a kindly unhoused person, Andre (Jaymes Butler), offers Tess and AJ shelter and explains Mother’s backstory, she bursts through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man. It does not go well for poor Andre: she rips one of his arms from its socket and beats him to death with it. Later, when Mother survives the fall from the water tower—successfully saving Tess in the process—she enacts her revenge on AJ by gouging out his eyes and vertically splitting his head open. Most people in my theater audience screamed; a few of them cheered. (AJ was an asshole.)
Verdict: While some of Gabriel’s countless kills in Malignant were admirably gruesome, there was a workmanlike quality to the proceedings. Gabriel barely had time to cherish his kills until moving on to his next target, but the character’s efficiency was a work of art in and of itself. He went full John Wick in a police station, all while walking around in reverse. Mother, meanwhile, was putting on a real show by savoring her kills. I don’t condone what she did to Andre, but I can certainly say I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Once again, this is a toss-up.
Since Gabriel can’t die without killing Madison, the only way to stop him without sacrificing an innocent woman is for Madison to have enough mental fortitude to keep him in check. But as Malignant teases right before the end credits, it may only be a matter of time before Gabriel takes over Madison’s body again and wreaks more havoc on the greater Seattle area. (Beef up your security, Starbucks HQ!) At the moment, the prospect of a Malignant sequel is more wishful thinking than anything else, bolstered by enthusiasm from the weirdest corners of the internet. But with any luck, Wan can parlay the presumptive commercial success of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom into the next installment of the parasitic twin cinematic universe (PTCU; working title).
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a similar course of action available to Barbarian’s Mother. If you’ve made it this far into the blog, then I have no qualms revealing that Mother is shot by Tess at the end of the film. This leaves only one option to continue Mother’s reign of maternal terror: a prequel. But since that would also mean delving further into a truly devastating backstory filled with rape and incest—part of Barbarian’s effectiveness is that it left much of the underground horrors to the audience’s imagination—it might be better if the movie stood on its own.
Verdict: Let’s not overthink this: Mother is dead; Gabriel isn’t. While the likelihood of either movie getting a sequel seems low, it’s hard to imagine Disney is pining for a follow-up to what may be the most fucked-up film the studio has ever released. While Warner Bros. Discovery is kind of a mess right now, it might be willing to indulge the filmmaker whose superhero movie crossed the billion-dollar threshold, especially if Wan strikes gold on the sequel.
Based on the results of this sophisticated rubric, Mother has a slight advantage over Gabriel. She might have killed far fewer foes, but Mother struck fear into the hearts of anyone who crossed her—and forcefully breastfed a grown man, which is definitely a first for me. Nevertheless, Gabriel can still leapfrog Mother if Malignant were to get a sequel—one that could provide the villain an entire movie to show off the moves he displayed in the police station. I’m also still quite partial to a good Malignant meme, of which there are many.
Gabriel, star of Malignant, has arrived at the 2021 Met Gala. pic.twitter.com/lt08LFiwuY— Crawford M Horton (@broiledcrawfish) September 13, 2021
That’s why, despite all the work (and science) put into determining which is the better modern movie monster, the real verdict may be out of reach. Unless Gabriel and Mother are able to duke it out on-screen—incredibly unlikely, but a horror lover can hope—this could prove as fruitless as finding out the identity of D.B. Cooper or whether Harry Styles spit on Chris Pine at the Don’t Worry Darling world premiere. But in the absence of answers, the memories of a parasitic twin puppeteering his sister’s body backward and a giant naked incest lady lurking underneath an unassuming Detroit Airbnb live forever.