While the dark sense of humor to this scene serves as a nice break between the moments of terror, it also ties back into an interesting thematic through-line. Tess had a conversation with Keith earlier in the film about the fundamental difference between how they navigate the world as a woman versus his perspective as a man. Though it’s in a comedically heightened form, this tonal shift in portraying the descent into the tunnel as Tess in the first act versus AJ the second time around is very much a literal, cinematic manifestation of their gendered experiences. Ironically, the motherly domain in which AJ is stepping into is one of feminine power. As he runs into the Mother, his role in this story shifts from a sexual predator in position of power to a creature’s vulnerable prey.
Like any great modern horror picture, “Barbarian” is a layered experience that understands how to manipulate its audience. However, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a studio horror flick so confident, meta, and willing to take big risks. Judging by the equally measured laughs and thrills the film earns in a fully packed cinema, its experiment was a success.