Barbarian is a unique horror movie experience in that can't really be discussed without ruining the experience (good or bad) for the viewer. The tagline is simple enough, "A woman staying at an AirBnB discovers that the house she has rented is not what it seems;" what can be said about it without any risk of spoilers is that writer/director Zach Cregger takes that starting point and makes an ambitious swing for horror-movie greatness with his debut feature. And, depending on crowd reactions to the many twists and turns this film takes (literally and figuratively) before the end, Cregger may have achieved something that will leave a mark on the horror genre.
As teased in the simple premise, Barbarian follows Tess (Krypton's Georgina Campbell), who travels to Detroit for a job interview, and takes an AirBnB stayover in a dilapidated part of town. When Georgina shows up on a dark and stormy night, she finds the rental is already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgård), and she has little hope of finding alternate accommodations that night. What happens next is a promised descent into horrific circumstances – though not in the way that the characters (or audience) will be prepared for.
Barbarian doesn't seek to reinvent the wheel of horror movie storytelling as much as it is looking to master it. Zach Cregger borrows big chunks from a variety of horror-thriller types, and mixes them into an Rube Goldberg Machine of increasingly frightful and outlandish circumstances, built across two slow-burn acts of tension and buildup, before exploding into a wild, all-out third act showdown. The script by Cregger is impressive in the way it seamlessly moves between time, place, and character perspective at different points, as there is, in fact, a moderately complicated, multi-piece storyline that all converges in the final act. And as outlandish as the reveals may get, there is a cohesive "logic" to the backstory of the film and the world it creates, that keeps you immersed the entire time.
Of course, Barbarian's progression of tension-to-horror wouldn't work at all if the actors involved couldn't sell it – but thankfully, the small ensemble cast are all on point. Georgina Campbell is the main vehicle for getting through Barbarian's opening act, and her performance as Tess, navigating the awkward situation with Keith, could be its own mini-movie. Campbell also keeps things grounded as the door opens wider on the true horror at work, and is a much-needed foil to Justin Long's scenery-chewing satirical take on a famous celebrity actor who gets caught up in the situation. Bill Skarsgård is there for a very specific purpose: for his creepy on-screen persona to keep us guessing – and it most certainly does. Character actors Richard Brake and Jaymes Butler show up to fill in some key bit roles, which play perfectly into their screen personas.
Barbarian is a dark-horse horror movie release that actually deserves theatrical viewing – not for the visuals it offers, but for the audience experience. Cregger constructed his descent into the demented and macabre with a horror connoisseur's confidence in measuring how each moment will play to the crowd. And it definitely is a fun run to take, together.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Barbarian is now playing in theaters.