3.5 out of 5 stars

Zach Cregger makes his solo directorial debut with Barbarian, having come from sitcom acting and even streaming on Twitch with his comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know (WKUK). It’s a memorable film that’s become the sleeper hit of the autumn, although Barbarian’s best experienced without any knowledge of what it involves. Even the trailer is cagey about what it chooses to reveal, so the below review will tread lightly.

Tess Marshall (Black Mirror’s Georgina Campbell) has a job interview in Detroit and arrives to stay at an Airbnb in the rundown neighbourhood of Brightmoor. Unfortunately, the house has been double-booked with a young man called Keith (Bill Skarsgård) already settled in for the evening, but he gallantly agrees to let Tess stay overnight. The ice breaks between them over a glass of wine before they hit the sack, but when Tess returns from her interview the next day she accidentally locks herself in the basement while Keith it out. And then things get progressively weird once Tess discovers a secret door to an underground corridor and rooms with the atmosphere of a serial killer’s lair… but that’s an altogether more rational explanation for what’s actually lurking down below…

The first hour of Barbarian is almost its own movie relying on the tight character interplay between Tess and Keith, with the latter someone you instinctively don’t trust given Skarsgård’s association with horror after playing Pennywise the clown in It (2017). Campbell and Skarsgård are fantastic together and Cregger creates a rich atmosphere of uncertainty between them, particularly after some nocturnal weirdness occurs and the scene is apparently set for haunted house hijinks. Without spoiling where the film actually takes us, once this long period of setup climax with a delightful jolt, we’re dropped into a different story concerning AJ Gilbride (Justin Long), whose career as a sitcom actor is about to be ruined by allegations he raped a co-star. AJ also seeks refuge at the same house in Detroit, not long after Tess and Keith spent time there, and these two storylines dovetail as what’s in the basement is revealed…

I can’t say more in good conscience, but suffice it to say Barbarian is an entertaining horror film that’s difficult to predict despite its hoary setup. There are thousands of haunted house movies about things going bump in the night, so updating one to involve an Airbnb with added social commentary about the impoverished state of Detroit, isn’t a guarantee audiences are going to find this any better than one of many other options.

However, Barbarian benefits from Cregger’s own screenplay and how it approaches the plot in such a peculiar way in terms of how and when the story unfolds. There’s a beginning, middle, and end that hews closely to cinema’s classic three-act structure, but the ratio’s a little off because the beginning takes up over half the runtime. The way two (maybe three?) storylines are knitted together also works beautifully, enhancing the eventual answer to the ‘what’s in the basement?’ mystery.

The only negative with Barbarian is informed by personal taste. I found the film became progressively more generic and illogical the longer it went along, which is perhaps to be expected once you’re told what the mystery is and have to seek entertainment in a more shopworn horror tale involving our characters escaping from a ‘boogieman’. There are also a handful of moments towards the end that edge towards a more supernatural angle I don’t think was entirely justified, while the climax asks audiences to swallow a few silly developments. I was also aggravated by scenes where two cops don’t take matters seriously, which I know is intended to be a commentary on the state of modern US policing, while also cranking up the tension because even the authorities aren’t helpful, but I felt the writers’ hand in such moments.

However, I won’t be unreasonably negative about Barbarian. The first hour is impeccable, the unexpected swerve to follow a new protagonist kept me on my toes, and the reveal of the mystery mostly worked for me. There are also some terrifically creepy shots and scary sequences, brought to life by a trio of talented actors working well together. Justin Long has a good nose for horror projects between this, Jeepers Creepers (2001), and Drag Me to Hell (2013).

Barbarian doesn’t fall apart by the end, but it did take a direction I wasn’t totally sold on considering how well Cregger had established things. I later learned he wrote the script with the inspiration of women ignoring subconscious red flags about peculiar men, which became a 30-page scene he decided to embellish with a crazy shock development. Even the perplexing choice of title was a placeholder that stuck. That explains a lot.

Barbarian feels like a fantastic TV episode that becomes a feature-length movie after morphing into something very different, and the transition isn’t as smooth as I’d have liked. But it’s also memorable by virtue of how unpredictable the story turns out to be considering how down-to-earth the setup is as something intimate and psychological.

USA | 2022 | 102 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Zach Cregger.
starring: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long & Richard Brake.