Fantastic Fest is a film festival focused on genre films, hosted annually at Austin’s famed Alamo Drafthouse theater (and was founded by the same people behind the Drafthouse). While everyone else is focused on prestige and awards come autumn, Fantastic Fest brings audiences horror, mystery, cult and the occult, classic and new genre gems. Kicking off my coverage of Fantastic Fest this year is one such film, Magnus Martens’ There’s Something in the Barn. It’s a Christmas horror, a holiday creature-feature in the vein of Gremlins and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the demented Yeti part). Written by Aleksander Kirkwood Brown, There’s Something in the Barn leans heavily on Eighties tone without overdoing either the kitsch or the schmaltz. Or the gore. Just the right amount of gore, really.
Bill (Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr) is a clueless American dad who moves his family to a remote Norwegian farm at Christmastime. He inherited the farm from an uncle he never met, after said uncle died in a, er, farm accident. Joining him is his second wife, Carol (Amrita Acharia), and his two kids, surly teen Nora (Zoe Winther-Hansen), and impressionable youngster Lucas (Townes Brunner). Bill is excited to reconnect with his Scandinavian roots, fulfilling his grandfather’s dream of returning to Norway, but Carol, a self-help guru, and Nora, a Mean Teen, are despondent over leaving sunny, warm California. Carol, at least, tries to put a good spin on it, but Nora is having none of this Norway nonsense.
Lucas, meanwhile, is immediately convinced there is something in the barn. Their new home is a picturesque if remote farm, complete with spooky old barn. This an A+ holiday house, the Norwegian farmhouse is postcard-perfect, at least in the beginning (art direction by Ainis Jankauskas and set decoration by Ieva Rojute). It doesn’t take long, though, before Lucas latches onto the local legend about nisse, elves who occupy barns and will help with the farm work as long as you are kind to them, and follow the rules of co-existence, which are: no bright lights, no loud noises, no changes. Lucas takes these rules to heart and makes friends with their barn elf (Kiran Shah), who, much like Gizmo the gremlin, looks pretty cute at first, sort of like a Santa doll come to life.
Bill and Carol, however, do not take the rules to heart, nor do they believe Lucas that they have a barn elf. Even though multiple townspeople comment on their farm being haunted, when Lucas says there’s something in the barn, they blow him off. Bill, particularly, is a classic Eighties Dad, totally, willfully clueless, oblivious to his family’s real feelings about anything. Martin Starr throws himself into the performance, perfectly nailing the hapless dad, but he never plays it like Bill doesn’t care about his family. He cares, he’s just ignoring every warning sign that his family is not as enthusiastic about their new life in Norway as he is. Starr is especially good in a scene in which Bill refuses to admit that lutefisk is revolting because it would mean admitting to everyone else that Norway is a less than perfect land.
Magnus Martens, who hails from Norway but has worked in Hollywood for years, lands a lot of good jokes at the expense of both Norway and America. Bill and Carol keep expecting people to have guns, the Norwegians keep saying, “We don’t go around shooting each other in the face all the time,” and, “This isn’t Detroit.” (There is a Chekhov’s gun in this film that pays off in a delightfully unexpected way.) The local cop (Henriette Steenstrup) is perfectly deadpan when dealing with the excitable Americans—she’s almost right out of a Coen Brothers film. And the local historian, Tor Åge (Calle Hellevang-Larsen), is a caricature of peaceable Scandi types, in the same way Bill and Carol are caricatures of overbearing Americans who expect every other country to be like America. Plenty of jokes to go around at everyone’s expense, but none of them ever feel mean-spirited, it’s just solid observational humor growing out of the stereotypes each culture has of the other. Martens walks a fine line, aided by the assured performances of the cast, who nail their archetypes perfectly.
In terms of recent holiday horror movies, Barn never quite reaches the highs or genuine scares of Rare Exports or Krampus, but it is a less cynical endeavor than last year’s Violent Night, and it hits the right combination of humor and horror, with a good goofy to violent gag ration, to make it a good time. This is definitely more on the “comedy” side of “horror comedy”, and, in fact, the “horror” is really just reserved for a few creepy moments and violent kills. Definitely think more Gremlins and less Krampus when going into this one. But for anyone who prefers less holly jolly in their Christmas movies and more monsters and mayhem, There’s Something in the Barn is a solid addition to the year-end rota.
This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors. There’s Something in the Barn will be released on November 10, 2023.