There have been some exceptionally good horror flicks this year, and about an equal amount that I’ve found wildly disappointing. My interest was piqued when I saw Barbarian, a horror film with a trailer that doesn’t tell you much, achieve rave early reviews from publications and individual critics that I respect. I went in with hushed expectations that were now on the higher side because I’ve just been burned one too many times by movies like this. But I’m happy when I’m proven wrong.
Oh yeah. The hype machine is not lying. Barbarian is equal parts horrifying, squirm inducing, hilarious and thought provoking. This is everything I want a horror movie to be and even better, it’s the kind of movie that invites you to go back and rewatch and discover elements and details you missed the first time. I love it when that happens.
Tess (Georgina Campbell) is visiting Detroit for a job interview and shows up to the Airbnb that she rented on the wrong side of town (is there a right side of town in Detroit?) late on a rainy evening for the interview the next day. She’s surprised to find Keith (Bill Skarsgard) at this house, and it’s become clear the house has been double booked and due to a few reasons, Tess is out of options and has to stay the night with this stranger. Complications ensue.
I’m being vague about the premise of Barbarian because the movie is constantly doing things that upend the viewer’s expectations. You never know where this crazy thing is going. In the middle of a very tense moment, the movie will cut to a seemingly unrelated story starring Justin Long as a Hollywood actor who is being accused of sexual assault on set. Part of the fun of this movie is trying to figure out how the A-story will interact with the B-story and trust me when I say they do. And trust me when I say you don’t even realize that until the end credits appear how well everything has come together. I was almost in disbelief at how well this movie managed to play me, when so many movies don’t even try to anymore.
Zach Cregger directed this, and he’s more known for comedy, but this is his first solo directorial effort. And Barbarian is every bit as hilarious as it is scary. Especially if you’re used to seeing movies like this, the film sort of revels in genre in-jokes with itself and that makes this more memorable than it would have been otherwise. There’s a lot of knowing, winky camerawork and it almost feels like a satire of the horror genre itself. Barbarian is a horror film that takes itself seriously to a point, but is campy enough to be a real hoot when it wants to be.
I had just seen the awful The Invitation the week before, and this is another movie about a pretty young woman in peril, and Barbarian succeeds just about everywhere where The Invitation failed. Georgina Campbell is a very likable lead and even though she is pretty consistently making horrible decisions (like any good horror protagonist might), you are really on her side from the start. Bill Skarsgard and Justin Long are also doing really great work, but I’m going to say less about those performances.
Barbarian is erratic, unpredictable and kind of a perfect horror comedy film. It throws you in directions you don’t anticipate many, many times and I can’t wait to see this again to see if it holds up as well now that I know where it’s going. After so many horror films this year have left me feeling lukewarm and/or cheated out of my time and money, it’s a relief to see a film that really knows what it’s doing and knows how to give its audience what it didn’t know it wanted. I definitely recommend seeing this on the biggest screen you can find with the biggest crowd you can find. The communal experience of “what the hell is even going on here” is part of the reason Barbarian works so well. It’ll blow you away.