BARBARIAN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Zach Cregger

Stars: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgard, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davies, Richard Brake.

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It’s been a good year for horror fans with some excellent and very creepy films being released. And now here is one of the best, destined to become a classic of the genre. However, it’s best not to reveal too much about Barbarian so as not to spoil the surprises. Suffice to say that this is an original, well scripted and cleverly crafted horror film that is genuinely scary, creepy and unsettling, and builds on atmosphere rather than unnecessary gore and bloodletting. 

It all starts with Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) who has booked an Air BnB in a suburb outside Detroit where she is attending a job interview with a documentary filmmaker the next day. She arrives in the middle of the night, and it is dark and pouring with rain and she can’t access the front door key in the lockbox. She discovers that the house is already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise the killer clown from the It movies, etc), a socially awkward musician, who booked the same house through a different site. Despite her initial misgivings about the situation and her suspicions about Keith, the two reach a compromise – Tess can sleep in the bed while Keith will take the couch.  But she is still uneasy in his presence. 

The next morning as she heads off to the job interview she notices that, in broad daylight, this is a depressing rundown area, and the house is the only one in the street that is not run down, abandoned or dilapidated. This environment is reminiscent of the setting of another horror film in Candyman, and injects an element of dread into proceedings. Returning to the house after the interview Tess is disturbed by creaking sounds, doors opening and closing. Going against all the rules of horror films she goes down into the basement to investigate, and discovers a secret room where obviously something bad has happened in the past. A palpable sense of dread permeates the material. 

And just as Tess discovers that something bad lurks in the basement tunnel the film abruptly cuts away and we meet a new character – moderately successful television star AJ (Justin Long, from Jeepers Creepers, etc), talking on his phone while driving along a highway in California. He is an actor who has just been informed that his career is on the skids due to allegations of inappropriate sexual relations with a costar. Apparently, he owns that very house that Tess has just rented. He heads off to Detroit planning to sell the house to pay for his expected legal fees and to avoid bankruptcy. Initially he is put out to discover that inconsiderate people have left their personal belongings behind in the house. But he too discovers that something is seriously wrong in the house.  

There is a middle act which is set in the 80s at the height of the Reagan era where we learn a little of the backstory of the house, which in itself sets up an intriguing and creepy scenario that could almost be turned into its own film. 

Barbarian is the solo debut feature from writer/director Zach Cregger (he co-directed the 2009 stoner comedy Miss March, etc, and is a member of the sketch comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U Know). He demonstrates a great understanding of the tropes of the genre, and even gives us a couple of clever red herrings to subvert our expectations.  

The film was apparently influenced by a self-help book The Gift Of Fear which encouraged women to trust their feminine intuition in certain situations where they felt uncomfortable, but Cregger also works in some important themes about race, capitalism, trust, urban decay, gender, toxic masculinity, predatory men, and the abuse of women in the #MeToo era. Audiences are never sure where the film is headed, and Cregger serves up a roller coaster ride of suspense with a couple of nicely timed jump scares and he manages to keep us off balance for much of the duration.  

Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein gives the material a suitably claustrophobic feel and he makes effective use of the limited lighting to heighten the tension within the tunnels under the house. The sound effects and sound design are impressive and add to the atmosphere, and Anna Drubich’s score is effectively unnerving. 

The lead performances are uniformly good. Campbell is solid as the feisty, resourceful and resilient Tess, while Cregger cleverly casts Skarsgard, effectively using his previous roles to undermine audience expectations. And Long brings some unexpected touches of humour to his role that soften his obnoxious character’s selfish and cynical edge.  

Barbarian is let down a little by its over-the-top ending and its unconvincing reveal of the monster which undermines the early promise of the material. Nonetheless this film is creepy and scary enough to have you reconsidering booking an AirBnB for your next holiday. 

★★★☆

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