I have a friend who really hates Justin Long. It’s probably my favorite thing about her. It’s not just that it’s completely random, nor that it’s incredibly irrational, it’s that Justin Long is the last person you would think would provoke that kind of reaction. He is a pleasant-looking guy with a pleasant-seeming personality. He does his films, he minds his own business, he is neither too famous nor too rich. He is perfectly acceptable as a human. And yet my friend despises him. She considers him banal, middle-of-the-road, undeserving of anything more than a passing glance. When I texted her the name of his podcast—Life Is Short with Justin Long, which I listen to on occasion—she wrote: “How appropriately dull.” I think I sent her back a heart emoji.
The reason I say all this is because I think it’s easy to underestimate Justin Long—he almost invites it. On screen, he is game to self-deprecate. Yet where he really kills is not as comic relief, but as the embodiment of hubristic comeuppance. And, of course, that kind of thing is most consequential in horror, where one false move can have you losing your head. Bruce Campbell is the only other actor I could think of who falls under this aegis of moron cock of the walk. Evil Dead is now considered a horror comedy even though it wasn’t initially, but much of the humor came from Campbell’s Ash and his barreling idiocy. There is nothing funnier than a person going full tilt in the wrong direction with absolute certainty; not only does Campbell know this, he seems to know it’s a decidedly male trait. More importantly, in a day and age in which men like this are being side-eyed daily, so does Long. In the wake of the so-called elevated horror of studios like A24 and social horror à la Jordan Peele, the low-rent pseudo-alpha horror guy is a welcome distraction, an uncomplicated vehicle for catharsis in an unremitting climate of toxic masculinity. And with the arrival of Barbarian, two decades into his career in scary movies, Long can finally be crowned the toxic horror king we (I) always knew he could be.
I saw Barbarian before I knew much about it. I knew Long was in it, but only from the split second he appeared in the trailer—I thought it was a simple Airbnb horror and he had a cameo or something. At the Toronto premiere, which was right before the Toronto International Film Festival and unofficially sold as the opening of its Midnight Madness horror program, I was surrounded by horror fans. It was the perfect crowd. Everyone laughed at all the red flags that the characters were missing from the jump, playing it off like an eerie rom-com, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for the first half of Barbarian to culminate in a main character’s head being pulverized before the screen suddenly went black. You could barely catch your breath and then: Justin Long. In the bright sunshine on the Pacific Coast Highway (or something) he bops his head in a suitably ridiculous way as he sings along in a suitably ridiculous way to Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi”—“United Nations ain’t really united / And the organizations ain’t really organized / Riki Tiki Tavi mongoose is gone.” Red convertible, palm-tree shirt, surrounded by palm trees, zero cares in the world. This asshole.
And it turns out he doesn’t just look like an asshole, he is one. The kind of Hollywood asshole who gets the call that he is being accused of rape by a co-star and his first thought is whether it will affect his show. The kind of asshole who responds to this accusation by trying to “ruin this fucking bitch” with a defamation suit. The kind of asshole who hangs up on his mom to take a call from an old buddy he has no doubt been calling the same slur since the ’90s. The kind of asshole who compares coercing a woman into sex to a Survivor song. (“It’s the eye of the tiger / It’s the thrill of the fight.”)
The pleasure of watching this asshole (his name is A.J.) can be found in how much Long leans in. The laughs tend to come from the broad stuff, but it’s the smaller quirks that show how tight Long’s grip is on this guy. Like the way A.J. is so distracted by losing his fortune when he is in his financial advisor’s office, that when the man behind the desk, clearly intending to drop A.J. as a client, says he is going to give him his files back, A.J. fires back almost defensively, “Cool,” then, almost as quickly, “What’s that mean?” My favorite part is when A.J. is finally in Detroit—where he has a bunch of properties, including the Airbnb from the first half of the film—and while talking to his lawyer on the phone in his rental car about doing “some fucking liquidating” he takes a moment to check his nostril hairs in the rearview (no way that was in the script). Long has an uncanny ability to juggle, just beneath the surface of this narcissist, absolute cowardice—eventually fully exposed in all its naked humility by whatever is going on in his basement—stemming from, predictably, his dad not loving him enough. (“Dad wants to see me? Did he say that?” A.J. mewls at one point to his mom.)
I’m not sure Zac Efron could have managed this. That’s who was supposed to play A.J., because, as writer/director Zach Cregger told Screen Rant, “I was thinking I want to go for some beefcake kind of himbo.” When Efron passed, Cregger changed his mind. He thought, “Who’s Tom Hanks? Justin Long is Tom Hanks. Let’s do that.” Since he started doing horror movies more than 20 years ago, Long has faced this meathead vs. mensch Hollywood binary. Jeepers Creepers writer and director Victor Salva (speaking of creeps) auditioned Long for the role of younger brother Darry after seeing him play the dorky-but-resourceful Trekkie type in Galaxy Quest in 1999. What clinched him the role was that rather than the premature machismo Salva kept seeing from other young male actors, Long played the selfish bratty younger brother facing off against a demon alongside his much braver older sister with equal parts humor and horror. (Long has an AMAZING fear face, huge eyes under huge eyebrows, face almost doubling in length with his slack jaw.) It probably didn’t hurt that Long also didn’t not have a six-pack.
In Drag Me to Hell, one of my favorite horrors of all time, Long once again plays sidekick to a powerful heroine. It’s worth noting that director Sam Raimi, who gave Campbell his big break as Ash in Evil Dead, chose Long and his similar energy to play Clay, the pragmatic psych-professor boyfriend of a loan officer cursed by an old woman she refuses to help. Clay isn’t an overt prick like Ash, the original horror asshole, who is incredibly stupid and incredibly cocky about it. But Long had a more sophisticated approach here than he did in Jeepers Creepers, nailing the subtly patronizing approach of the rich mama’s boy who can’t help but look down on his former-farm-girl partner and the psychic from whom she seeks help, only to watch in terror as everything they said comes to pass and she is quite literally dragged to hell. “My dad’s a philosophy professor, and he’s very rational,” Long said at the time. “I had to tap into somebody who is just a bit more right-brained in their thinking.”
But it was Tusk five years later that really solidified Long’s talent for the more toxic-brained. The 2014 cult horror by Kevin Smith is divisive for a number of reasons, not least of which is because it ends with Long being turned into a walrus—seriously—as a literalization of his slipping humanity. He starts out as Wallace, a douchebag mustachioed podcaster, one of those guys we know all too well by now who used to be a total geek, and whose sudden success becomes the reason to diminish everyone around him as a kind of retroactive penance (he literally calls a maimed kid who kills himself before he was set to appear on his show “a peg-legged piece of shit” for ruining the episode). Long said he modeled the character on those “Howard Stern wannabe guys” you find on the radio and at comedy shows, those mean-spirited right-leaning types who these days tend to congregate on YouTube. Wallace is the overly confident soulless loser who trusts an invitation he sees over the toilet and ends up sewn up like a walrus because of it. House of Darkness, released in early September of this year, has Long in a similar situation, playing an arrogant asshole who ultimately calls the girl he is trying to seduce the c-word, only to discover she is in fact a vampire.
“I don’t know if I’m a bad person,” A.J. says towards the end of Barbarian. “I might be.” He says this tearfully, in a way that makes it obvious he is crying not for the woman he assaulted, but for himself. To prepare for the role, Long studied some of the panoply of phony performances he had seen on The Bachelor. “I like the idea that this guy doesn’t really know who he is,” he told The Wrap, adding that A.J. is “a guy who’s always shape-shifting and different douche-y versions of himself.” Not knowing who he is makes A.J. unprepared to know anything else going on around him. The biggest laugh when I watched Barbarian for the second time was when he comes across the Airbnb’s epically creepy basement and then immediately returns upstairs to google whether he can monetize the space. What follows is a comically extended montage of A.J.’s measuring rampage, in which he ignores all the creepy shit—the dirty mattress, the cameras, the blood handprint, the empty cages—in a quest to increase the value of his house. That oblivion—the failure to see what’s in front of him, the bravado overlaying the vulnerability, the concern for only his own validation—is a sophisticated look at toxicity, but this film doesn’t wear its sophistication on its sleeve.
Barbarian (in theaters now, out on HBO Max Oct. 25) didn’t come out of a vacuum. Cregger is friends with Peele, his film does have a socially conscious bent, and he did take it to A24 (they rejected it, as did Neon). But as a feature by a fairly green filmmaker, alongside first-time feature filmmaker Parker Finn’s Smile, and James Wan’s tongue-in-cheek scaries (Malignant, the upcoming M3gan), Barbarian offers a throwback to a time when horror was fun and smart without a thick vein of DISCOURSE running through every scene (see the newest Scream for an example of that, if you dare). Cregger, Finn, and Wan realize that if you are making horror now, the zeitgeist is going to be implicit. And implicit with Long is that he can seamlessly embody the kind of white male ego that has gotten away with everything for so long. He’s the perfect poster boy for the kind of thrill Evil Dead gave us, which audiences appear to have missed, before horror was forced to be so much more than that. And the industry seems to finally get it—in the upcoming Dear David, he plays the head of BuzzFeed, proof Hollywood realizes no asshole is too big for his talents.