A woman arrives at an Airbnb in Detroit the night before a job interview. She quickly learns that the home has been double-booked and there is already a man staying there. Polite and friendly, he suggests they both sleep in the house (her in the bedroom, him on the couch). Reluctantly, she agrees and they stay up late, drinking and getting to know one another. It is a meet-cute straight out of a romantic comedy. That is, until a trip to the basement uncovers a hidden passage, behind which lies some horrifying secrets.
This is the setup for Barbarian (98 minutes, not including the end credits) a strange, darkly funny, bloody and effectively creepy horror movie. Its many twists make it challenging to discuss it without revealing too much; the advertising has been pretty good at not spoiling any surprises. The genre material is well-done, while its themes (gender power dynamics being the most significant) are hit-or-miss. Still, an original, exciting, entertaining horror entry that takes chances is more than welcome. Barbarian certainly delivers in that regard.
Writer/director Zach Cregger has mostly worked in comedy prior to this. Some of that sensibility shows up here; there are a few genuinely funny gags. But make no mistake: the humor is not the focus here. Cregger proves to be very skilled at generating tension using the fear of the unknown. There could be anything in that basement passage and he mines a lot of suspense out of taking his time before revealing what is actually there. He seems to know exactly when his movie needs a scare, showing his hand at the right moments for several satisfying payoffs. It is an impressive genre debut.
One of the things he does so well is establishing his characters so they seem like real people when the craziness gets going. The woman is Tess, played by Georgina Campbell and the man is Keith, played by Bill Skarsgård. She is smart, guarded and acts like someone who has seen a lot of horror movies and knows what not to do. He is outgoing, maybe a little lonely and seems to live life as though there is nothing to be afraid of.
Their early scenes together are sweet and convincing. You could almost believe this is a story of these two people falling for each other, if it weren’t for the unsettling music on the soundtrack. The performances are solid, with Campbell especially creating a likeable and sympathetic character after just a couple of scenes. Skarsgård is good at an offbeat kind of charm that makes Keith come off as a little odd. It is hard to care about what happens to the heroes of a horror movie if you don’t know them enough to care about them. That is a big benefit of Cregger utilizing a slower pace in his first act.
Once it really gets going, Barbarian doesn’t go off the rails so much as it turns out there may not have been any rails in the first place. The second half gets quite bizarre, bringing with it a sense that the screenplay has lost focus. That ends up not being the case, since nearly everything connects in terms of either plot or theme by the conclusion. Though the ending is the only section that feels rushed, as well as a bit forced, there are also a few “Wait, but how…” questions that didn’t come to mind until after it was over. Not every part of this works; however, its energy and fearlessness make up for a bunch of its issues. This is one wild ride.
3½ out of 5
Georgina Campbell as Tess
Bill Skarsgård as Keith
Justin Long as AJ
Directed and Written by Zach Cregger