Barbarian is a horror thriller which stands out from the pack.
The film follows Tess (Georgina Campbell) who travels to Detroit for a job interview. Arriving at night, she discovers her AirBnB rental property is already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgård). Surprising at first, it appears to be an accidental double booking and the two eventually hit it off. The next day, while Keith is out, Tess explores the rental and accidentally becomes locked in the basement. Down there, she finds much more than she bargains for. It becomes clear there are many unsettling things about this house other than an unexpected guest.
Where to even begin or how to even approach such a bonkers film? I don’t think I have jumped between liking and disliking a movie so many times before. Barbarian is best approached with a completely open mind and as little prior information as possible. In fact, I believe the trailers and even the poster itself do the audience a disservice in spoilers.
Barbarian is the brainchild of writer and director Zack Cregger, a main cast member of subversive comedy series ‘The Whitest Kids U’Know’. Myself having some knowledge of that series, had I caught Cregger’s name I may have had some hint of what to expect here. It makes sense that someone known for such outside of the box comedy would approach horror in a similar way, and that is the greatest strength of Barbarian, it’s unpredictability.
Cregger has crafted a film which surprises at every turn in a genre stagnant with conventionality. It is at different times scary, funny, shocking, weird, and intriguing. Barbarian jumps between these extremes with ease, making it a highly entertaining experience if you stick with it.
Unfortunately, the film lacks in consistency, and this applies to its characters but especially to its themes. There is no steady line with the way the movie shifts gears as often as it does. Yes, the scenes are scary, amusing, and strange, but do the scenes connect thematically or even at times narratively with the scene that precedes or follows it? Not always.
Supposedly, Barbarian started out as a 30-minute short and expanded from there. In trying to avoid spoilers I can definitely see this as after this mark is about when the film goes off the rails. I can’t help but think perhaps Barbarian would have worked better as an anthology film. Several shorts based around this house of horrors may have allowed for the outlandish tonal shifts more comfortably. Then again, perhaps not as Cregger does have such a fun movie as it is. As I stated earlier, I went between liking and disliking this wild ride frequently.
It takes a long time for Barbarian to get started, however this is made bearable thanks to the lead actors. Skarsgård is of course best known for his portrayal of Pennywise in Stephen King’s ‘IT’. He brings that same underlying creepiness here even when playing such a normal character. Campbell is fascinating as the woman pushed to further and further extremes. While genre favourites Justin Long and Richard Brake are brilliant in the roles best left to be discovered upon viewing.
I must mention the brilliant cinematography by Zach Kuperstein. Having worked on the similarly claustrophobic ‘haunted house’ movie The Vigil, this is somewhat familiar ground for him. But he also makes a perfect fit for Cregger’s almost schizophrenic storyline, switching styles visually as the film shifts tonally.
Barbarian, despite my reservations regarding its plot and characters, is an entertaining film. My cinema was full of people having a hell of a good time and what more could you ask for? Much like the best horror films, it is their unconventionality which sets them apart and in that respect, Barbarian is one of the most unique films in the genre.