Amid the sea of seats in a dimly lit, empty theater screening the horror–thriller Barbarian, there was just me and my bucket of buttered popcorn. Watching horror films alone is already sort of a death sentence for someone who gets scared easily. However, what frightened and excited me the most as Barbarian began was not the emptiness of the theater or the prospect of watching a horror movie alone in the dark. My excitement was because I knew absolutely nothing about the insanity I was hurling myself into.
In the current landscape of mainstream cinema, it seems like the element of mystique and enticing the audience with the unknown has been almost completely stamped out. While plenty of blockbusters are still enjoyable, there are only a select few like The Batman, Top Gun: Maverick, and Everything Everywhere All at Once that maintain the mystique and grandeur of old Hollywood. There is a looming issue with blockbusters that has gotten exponentially worse in the digital era: The audience knows way too much before they even watch a movie.
With the rise of the internet and social media, it’s easier now than ever to be informed about a movie before you see it. Instagram ads, a sea of TV commercials and trailers with millions of views, and interviews with actors, directors, and producers all help ruin the element of surprise. Keep in mind, this breadth of information doesn’t even account for the massive leaks and theory videos that spoil major blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame and Spiderman: No Way Home months before they come out. All of these teasers serve the same two purposes: to get our asses into the theater and to remove any uncertainty about the movie itself—regarding either its quality or plot.
However, advertisements can also have the unintended consequence of setting our standards for the film solely based on the material we’ve been presented with. With months, if not years, of extensive marketing leading up to a big release, the audience has ample time for speculation and expectation. But with so much hype and discussion for a film, is it truly possible for there to be any complete surprises? We have so many of the movie’s puzzle pieces, from plot points to behind–the–scenes information, that we feel compelled to try our best to put them together. Suppose the audience is unsuccessful, which they often are; in that case, people either are upset that the movie doesn’t live up to the hypothetical version they imagined, or they are entertained but still have those deflated expectations.
Barbarian, which arrives on HBO Max on Oct. 25 after its theatrical run, breaks away from this tradition of spoiling its plot, thus creating a captivating and memorable movie–watching experience. Directed by Zach Cregger and starring Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and Justin Long, Barbarian is about a woman who discovers that the rental home she’s booked is already occupied by a stranger, and yet she continues to stay the night which leads to a frightening and unexpected turn of events.
Many went to see this horror film—not because of its cast, trailer, or advertisements, but through word–of–mouth. By allowing the audience to essentially market the film themselves, general moviegoers were more likely to be surprised by the movie as opposed to having story beats shoved down their throats before watching. When presented with only light marketing, glowing praise, and a simple plot synopsis, people become far more intrigued by the product; this light marketing tactic keeps the movie thrilling, as the audience has little idea what turns the film will make.
Barbarian does this to great effect, taking its narrative in a new direction every step of the way without losing the general structure and atmosphere of the movie. The audience is surprised at every twist and turn because they didn’t expect it. This would be impossible to pull off if the film was marketed similarly to, say, a Marvel movie because people would likely have some kind of leak online or a sneaky reference in one of the countless trailers that tips them off on what will occur. But with Barbarian, the joy of the movie is experiencing the fear and excitement of the unknown, and the movie is able to take us on an incredible journey as a result.
With film studios appearing to prioritize money above all else, what is their incentive to market a film with little marketing? Well, according to Variety, as of Oct. 12, Barbarian has maintained surprisingly steady box office returns, dropping less than 40 percent from its initial weekend gross over the course of four weeks. While Barbarian only had a decent opening weekend, people talked about Barbarian with their friends and family, helping it remain popular in theaters over time; Barbarian has currently grossed over $39 million worldwide on a budget of just $4 million. It wasn’t even the only indie horror movie to accomplish this sort of feat in the past month, as the similarly lauded and mysterious Smile cackled its way to a $100 million gross on a $17 million budget, holding steady week after week due to word–of–mouth.
Overall, it seems that a lot of indie horror films have benefited from both word–of–mouth and the element of surprise. Releases like Hereditary, Midsommar, and The Lighthouse have all gone through similar patterns at the box office and, more importantly, are a part of mainstream pop–culture. Is this always the case? Of course not. But it’s undeniable that recent movies that thrive on intrigue are not only more likely to have better holdovers week after week but also to grow bigger over the years. While movies like Ant–Man and the Wasp have largely been forgotten in four years, smaller movies like The Witch, which came out around the same time, are still being discussed. Classics like The Shining and The Thing were box–office disasters back in their day, but they’re now hailed as some of the greatest and most impactful films of all time, largely because they leave so much room for audience interpretation and critical thinking. This goes to show that money can’t always buy impact, which studios should take notes on.