One of the most pleasurable experiences of being a horror fan is to run into a new film that tears up the rule book and plays with the medium in order to give you a brand new experience that makes all the usual scenarios feel overwhelmingly fresh. However, with this pleasure usually comes a huge amount of frustration as you desperately want to preserve the surprises while simultaneously singing the movie’s praises.
It’s on this note that I’m going to bring up Zach Cregger’s superlative shocker, Barbarian, a nerve shredding horror/thriller whose powers are most at their peak the less you know going in.
However, as I simply can’t just write “just go see it” and call it a day, be warned that I’m probably going to drop an inadvertent spoiler or two, so how about you do us both a favour and just see Barbarian post haste.
For the rest of you, the zig zagging story goes a little something like this: Tess Marshall has traveled to Detroit for an important job interview and has booked to stay at an Airbnb that she arrives at one dark and stormy night. However, much to her annoyance, it turns out that the property has been mistakenly been double booked by a young man named Keith.
The two politely circle each other, both highlighting the unsettling social situation they find themselves in while neither overtly stating that this is potentially a situation that could go spectacularly bad (especially for Tess), but after they start to get to know each other and find they actually have some common ground, they both relax and settle in for the night with Tess taking the bed and Keith opting for the sofa.
Aside from some late night weirdness, Tess wakes ready for her interview, but on returning to the house, she stumbles on a secret door located in the basement that leads to a bare room that worryingly contains only a bed, a bucket and a video camera on a tripod. This, understandably sets off a sizable red flag alarm and matters are made even more butt-puckery when in addition to this, Tess finds she’s locked in the basement thanks to a defective door. However, when Keith gets home, he refuses to leave until he checks it out and when he doesn’t return, Tess (infuriatingly good person that she is) searches for him and instead finds a further secret passage way that leads to subterranean, maze-like passages that exist under the house with Keith’s pleading voice faintly calling out to her…
It’s here that the movie starts a succession of expansive rug pulls that make a handful of jumps in time in order to explain some motivations and some skin-crawling back story. Who actually owns this house? What lurks in the tunnels? Can the awkward Keith be trusted and what does any of this have to do with disgraced sitcom actor AJ Gilbride who is jetting back to Detroit in order to liquidate some assets?
If you’ve made it this far in this review and you still haven’t seen Cregger’s majestically fantasic bout of narrative fuckery, then you’re doing yourself a disservice, because the movie’s intriguing trick of drip feeding plot, characters and motivation on you only when you need it means that Barbarian ends up being one of the most gripping experiences of the year.
Aside from being a genuinely startling horror movie, Barbarian also has a few neat things to say about the inherent goodness in people that’s sorely tested in make or break moments when a panicked, life or death situation forces you to reveal exactly the sort of person you truly are.
Even the quiet bits of the movie, long before the secrets of the Airbnb are brutally revealed, are hardwired with gnawing tension as Georgina Campbell’s Tess and Bill Skarsgärd’s Keith play an intriguing game that social politeness demands that they play close to their chest. The more polite Keith gets, the deeper into subtle avoidance Tess has to get. It’s a subtle dance that women who trust has had to indulge in more than once and it’s as humorously relatable as it is regrettably familiar and as it plays out, Cregger keeps moving the goal posts with some deliberately jarring resets in order to keep us off balance while widening the scope. This leads to the introduction of Justin Long’s toxic brat of an actor who enters the movie while seemingly having nothing to do with it, but rest assured, while he adds a more overt albeit still appropriately dark and satirical sense of humor to proceedings (the constant tape measuring is genius), this veteran of such traumatic, cinematic escapades such as Jeepers Creepers and Tusk gets passed through the wringer just like everyone else with the breast feeding scene certain to live rent free in a brain or two long after the credits have rolled.
On top of all this choking tension, storytelling gymnastics and WTF payoffs, the movie also takes it upon itself to address a smattering of social issues that covers everything from the abject poverty that still blights parts of Detroit (this movie would make an amazing double bill with Don’t Breathe) to the #timesup movement and toxic relationships, but this only heightens the horror and never dilutes the really freaky stuff.
So what is going on? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out, but rest assured that things get really fucked up with impressive results and Zach Cregger seems to be the latest filmmaker with comedic roots (he’s most famous for sketch show The Whitest Kids U Know) who turns out to have an impressively attuned ear for horror and while admittedly some aspects of Barbarian may feel vaguely familiar (the ever more disturbing rug pulling is slightly reminiscent of Martyrs while some imagery evokes some memorable moments from [REC]), Jordan Peele and John Krasinski have some enticing company.
Some may have a slight believability issue with Tess’ decency in the face of hyperventilating terror, but Cregger’s script covers all the bases nicely, conveniently explaining away any potholes with a constantly locking basement door or some epically disinterested police. He also comes armed with a fantastic score loaded with screaming voices and some innovative uses of lens choice to help tell his constantly twisting tale which hopefully won’t be a one stop drop in the genre for the promising director.
A genuine front runner for horror title of the the year (in fact, if it wasn’t for Ti West’s X, it just might of bagged it), Barbarian lives up to both its name and the hype to deliver an unbalancing shocker that has brains to match its bloody brawn