Zach Cregger’s Barbarian is poised to do for Airbnbs what Escape Room did for the titular attraction, Final Destination 2 did for log-trucks, and maybe what Jaws did for beaches.
The latter might be a stretch, but this isn’t. Barbarian is yet another W for the horror genre this year. Similar to Jordan Peele’s first-go-round, you’d emerge believing Cregger was a horror lifer as opposed to a career comedy writer with how skillfully he operates. He subverts expectations and constantly throws you for a loop without drawing too much attention to red herrings. In fact, he takes familiar setups and plays with our preconceived notions to the point where we can’t help but be along for the bloody, shifty, and damn satisfying 100 minute ride.
The premise starts simple, and it theoretically could happen to any of us. A documentary researcher named Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb in a rundown area of Detroit on a rainy evening. There is no key in the lockbox. Somehow, the house was double-booked, and her fumbling awakens Keith (Bill Skarsgård, It), the friendly but anxious renter who got there first. Keith invites her inside and agrees to take the couch so she can take the bed, and that they’ll address the matter in the morning.
Right off the bat, we’re already apprehensive to this dynamic for Tess’ sake. So is Keith, which is why he makes her a cup of tea, which she rejects, and later offers her a glass of wine only after watching him open the bottle, to prove it’s not spiked. The following day, Tess goes on a job interview and then returns to the house only to get locked in the basement. For some reason, she decides to enter a secret door, which opens when a nearby rope is pulled. The house has a hidden room with a spare bed frame, a bucket, and a camcorder, along with a tunnel that leads to…
The rest is for you to find out. Cregger — who was the star/writer/director of the IFC sketch comedy series The Whitest Kids U’ Know and one half of the duo behind the Playboy comedy Miss March in 2011 — revels in toying with the audience in a way that encourages active engagement. The film is essentially divided into three chapters. Later on, we’re introduced to Justin Long’s AJ, a smarmy sitcom actor whose career and reputation are threatened after allegations come to light. In the third act, we’re plunged into the Reagan-era and meet a mysterious old man played by Richard Brake.
Cregger is deftly ambitious in the way he pivots to these different periods. He is instinctive on when and where to cut to new settings, which are so drastically different from our starting point that we’re compelled to pay attention to see how/why these elements fit into the larger puzzle. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein has fun playing with different aspect ratios and colors during these periods as well. Anna Drubich’s score, comprised of choirs and ominous strings, tie together an unpredictable package.
Things get wild and gruesome over time. Barbarian isn’t far removed from the craziness of James Wan’s Malignant, but it’s a far more consistently entertaining work than that one. It’s not without some issues in the realm of some seriously poor decision-making on part of the characters. I’m one to let characters’ ill-advised choices in horror movies slide, preferring to direct my attention to other integral elements. However, for all the work Cregger does in making Barbarian savvy, some choices Tess and AJ make are just completely boneheaded, even if they do advance the plot.
Georgina Campbell has the performance of the hour, who is otherwise capable despite some of Tess’ goofy decisions. Justin Long yet again takes an entirely unlikable character and doubles down, while Skarsgård retains his ability to play somebody who is well-meaning but… off, in both appearance and approach.
Barbarian lightly recalls Don’t Breathe for more than just the Detroit connection. This is another commendably well-made genre-work that might serve as a second act for Cregger, should he choose to continue down the path of making fine-tailored, engrossing horror movies.
NOTE: Barbarian is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Georgina Campbell, Justin Long, Bill Skarsgård, Matthew Patrick Davis, Richard Brake, and Jaymes Butler. Directed by: Zach Cregger.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!