Director: Zach Cregger
Screenplay: Zach Cregger
Stars: Georgina Campbell (Tess), Bill Skarsgård (Keith), Justin Long (AJ), Matthew Patrick Davis (The Mother), Richard Brake (Frank), Kurt Braunohler (Doug), Jaymes Butler (Andre), Sophie Sörensen (Bonnie), Rachel Fowler (Meg), J.R. Esposito (Jeff)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2022
Country: U.S.

There is a scene about midway through Zach Cregger’s deliriously unpredictable new horror-thriller Barbarian in which a character, having discovered a secret door in the basement of her Airbnb, stands before the gaping, black void. The suspense builds and builds as we wait for her to make the terrible decision to enter the darkness and find out what horrors lurk within, and the music builds and builds on the soundtrack before suddenly cutting out as she says, “Nope!” and then turns and goes the other way. Sensible. But, since Barbarian is a horror film, we know that she will be back at some point, as the plot must conjure up a reason for her to do the very thing that the vast majority of us would never do.

But, see, I feel like I have already given away too much of the film. Barbarian is, if anything, a giddy-unnerving exercise in narrative whiplash, as Cregger (who both wrote and directed) seems to take sadistic relish in slowly setting up a potentially awful situation and then taking us into completely unexpected territory. In hindsight, most of it makes sense and fits together and isn’t really all that daring, but the manner in which Cregger tells his story is vertiginous in the way it suddenly introduces new subplots at unpredictable moments and pulls us back and forth in time without immediately obvious cues. Barbarian is the kind of film that keeps you on your toes, right up to the very end.

Of course, that means the less you know about the film, the better, so I will try not to say anything that you wouldn’t have seen in the trailer. The general set-up finds a twentysomething woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) arriving at an Airbnb in Detroit on a dark and extremely rainy night. She is in town for a job interview, but soon discovers that the house has been double-booked and is already occupied by a seemingly genial young man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård), who first invites her inside to call for different accommodations and, when that fails, offers to let her stay in the house with him. There is nothing overtly wrong with Keith (aside from the fact that he is played by the actor who played the diabolical Pennywise in the two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s It [2017, 2019]), but there are still little red flags all over that he is not to be trusted. Nevertheless, Tess is desperate and is in a desperate situation, so she makes the decision to go ahead and stay. I won’t say anything beyond that except to note that the house in which they are staying is harboring something beyond the basement (as indicated in the scene I initially described) and that eventually the plot incorporates the house’s owner, a smarmy television producer named AJ (Justin Long) who has just been accused of sexual assault by one of his stars, and Frank (Richard Brake), the man who owned the house back in the 1980s.

Cregger began his career as an actor on various television series, including the sketch series The Whitest Kids U’Know (2007–2011), which he also co-wrote and produced. His forte up until now has been almost exclusively comedy; however, as Jordan Peele has recently demonstrated with Get Out (2017), Us (2019), and Nope (2022), the line between comedy and horror is a very thin one, indeed, and it only takes a small step to go from one to the other. Cregger’s sensibility is quite a bit like Peele’s, as he is clearly invested in engaging with various social and political issues through the lens of horror, even though his ideas are a bit muddy at times (I kept waiting for something more to be made of the fact that the Airbnb is located in the midst of the largely deserted, nightmarishly burnt-out Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit, but nothing ever really materializes beyond the plot machinations). Much clearer is the sense of gendered horror, as Cregger establishes the constant menace that women must endure from men, even ones who seem completely innocuous, and then takes that menace and ramps it up into the core of the film’s horrific revelations.

In interviews, Cregger has noted that the film’s plot germinated from his reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, which confronted him with the realization that, as a man, he does not have to pay attention to potentially threatening red flags from the opposite sex. Barbarian cannily starts with subtle insinuations that something isn’t right before delving into the maw. It doesn’t completely hold together in the end, and some of its final moments threaten to become silly just when the screws have turned the tightest, but it still works as a bold and frequently riveting thriller that goes in directions you never could have anticipated.

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Overall Rating: (3)

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