A film review by Craig J. Koban November 9, 2022


2022, R, 102 mins

Georgina Campbell as Tess  /  Bill Skarsgård as Keith  /  Justin Long as AJ  

Written and directed by Zach Cregger

Writer/director Zach Cregger's BARBARIAN (marking his feature film debut) is the kind of spine-tingling and sensationally effective (at least early on) horror film that seems to write itself into a corner in its latter stages and is ultimately unsure as to how it really wants to conclude its truly grisly storyline.  

I will say this with supreme confidence, though: The first 45 or so minutes of this chilling low budget $5 million scarefest are about as pitch perfectly executed as anything that I've seen - regardless of genre - all year.  Cregger takes a modest premise - a desperate woman trying to figure out what to do with an overbooked rental home in a sinister area of town - and, to his credit, takes it down some extremely macabre avenues that even I wasn't expecting going in cold.  It's just so damn unfortunate that BARBARIAN runs out of creative gas in its third act and never pays itself off as handsomely as it wants to and instead devolves into stale genre clichés.  But the first two thirds - hot damn! - makes for a brutally efficient and darkly amusing tale that's worthy of the best that THE TWILIGHT ZONE had to offer. 

Going into too many plot specifics here would lead me down into spoiler territory, which I will endeavor to avoid.  Let's just say that the film opens with Tess (a well cast Georgina Campbell), who has traveled to Detroit for a job interview, but when she arrives in what appears to be the worst sections of the Motor City she's emotionally crushed to discover that her rental home has no available key or any other entrance point.  She soon finds out that the property is already occupied by Keith (yes, Pennywise the Clown himself in Bill Skarsgard, playing what appears to be a normal everyday guy here), who tells the frustrated Tess that he too has booked the rental and arrived before her.  Realizing that this home has been double booked, Tess is left without much in the way of accommodations (that, plus it's pouring rain and she's a mess).  The kindly stranger in Keith takes pity on poor Tess and offers her a chance to come in and stay the night if she wants, but Tess seems initially concerned with sharing a home for one night with a man she doesn't know and just met.  He politely reassures her that he's harmless and will attempt no funny business, so Tess begrudgingly agrees. 

Again, these sections of BARBARIAN are tension-filled to the max, but in more subtle ways than what we usually expect within the horror genre.  There's a definite subtext to this vulnerable woman taking a leap of faith to enter this rental home and share it with this man that seems to be a soft spoken and compassionate voice of reason, but the whole scenario taps into every woman's worst nightmare fears of trusting the wrong man at the wrong time and in unfamiliar settings.  The implied terror of Keith potentially being a nutty predatory fiend plagues Tess early on, which gives these early scenes between them such a vibe of pure dread.  I mean, is Keith really a nice guy to be trusted?  Or, is he secretly a sociopath that lures in women when their defenses are down?  One of the masterstrokes of BARBARIAN is in its casting of Keith, and considering Skarsgard's past - and more well known - history of playing that supernatural monstrous clown in IT (who lured in children for the slaughter) Cregger is able to drum up so much slow-burn suspense just in the seemingly nonchalant moments between these two double booked people.  Keith tries to break the ice with some polite small talk and offering of tea, but Tess feels rightfully guarded.  A bit more time passes and as Tess starts to lower her emotional defenses they begin to talk over wine.  BARBARIAN makes viewers simmer with the uneasy feeling of what's to come, because it sure as hell seems like Keith is too good to be true. 



Now, how to I proceed from here without revealing too much?  I'll keep it simple by relaying that Tess manages to lock herself in the basement of the home the next day while trying to look for bathroom supplies, but she discovers something...well...truly horrifying in the bowels of this basement.  When Keith returns to the home and finds the frantic Tess screaming from the basement window he frees her, after which time she quickly tells him what's actually lurking beneath the house.  Keith doesn't seem to believe her, so he grabs a flashlight and journeys into the basement to investigate.  Then he quickly disappears.  Then sounds of him screaming emanate through the basement.  Feeling guilty, Tess journeys back into the basement herself...and then...and then... 

Well...I can't say anything further, other than Cregger immediately segues his film to a whole different character across the country, an up-and-coming TV actor named AJ (a deliciously sleazy Justin Long), whose series is about to hit big time, that is until he's charged with sexual assault that's about to go public.  Oh, he's also the owner of the rental property in question and he decides to flee the scandal, makes the trek to Detroit, and attempts to sell the property to pay what's going to be high legal fees.  And upon arrival at the home he discovers what Tess and Keith discovered earlier in the basement...and then...and then... 

Okay.  Here's the deal.  The way that Cregger sets up BARBARIAN and delves into its genuinely unsettling social situation between Tess and Keith that could fly off the handle at any moment is what makes this horror film sing.  The first hour is all about exploration in terms of establishing Tess' plight of being a woman needing a job and stuck in a crummy part of a foreign city with no place to crash.  Cregger is merciless in teasing viewers about the perceived threat of Keith, and the is he or isn't he aspect of his character is what unnervingly propels this film and makes it so relatable unsettling.  Cregger also has an impeccable visual sense with the material and takes great glee in tapping into the true heart of deplorable darkness that lurks below this home, and as both Keith and Tess venture into the pitch dark subterranean tunnels of this Airbnb it's hard not to watch this film through your fingers.  It becomes alarmingly clear that the threat of the unknown...of what's actually underneath this home...is what's actually scary.  BARBARIAN is as technically assured as any film ten or twenty times its budget, and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein's ability to play with light (well, flashlight) and shadow alongside flirting with different aspect ratios to denote time shifting back and forth from present to past are bravura touches, to be sure. 

But, dammit, BARBARIAN proves that it's perhaps far easier to have an awesome idea for a horror film and introduce it than it is to carry it forward to successful fruition, and Cregger mournfully never gives his film a sense of satisfying finality.  The last third of film just implodes on itself and not so much for its reveal of the secrets of the home itself, but rather in its execution from that point.  The razor sharp confidence of BARBARIAN gets trumped later by the way that Cregger wallows in a lot of horror/slasher film troupes that we've seen countless times before, oftentimes showing characters engaging in spectacularly stupid behavior and/or making choices that, in turn, make no sense whatsoever.  Much of the plotting in the tail end of BARBARIAN involves some ultra convenient scripting, not to mention that it begs a lot of questions about the secrets of the home that strains even modest logic.  I found myself asking how what's actually in the home's basement was allowed to remain there unnoticed by anyone for years, even after multiple owners and renovations (we get a flashback set in the 80s that dishes out further explanations, but this unintentionally led to more nagging questions).  And the film seems to rush itself to an adrenaline-induced extended chase sequence set outside of the home with many obligatory false endings and characters that seem dead, but only miraculously resurrect themselves for one last jump scare.   

It genuinely bothers me when films like BARBARIAN begin so smartly, but end so insipidly.  I also think that Cregger absolutely has the talent to pull off this film's blending of Jordan Peele-esque social commentary and pure grotesque horror genre thrills, but he never seems to crack that to the fullest.  BARBARIAN fully embraces the social horror aspects of its premise early on, but then kicks them to the curb when it seems like it wants to be just another throwaway slasher picture in its concluding sequences.  That's a shame.  Plus, Cregger doesn't have much of anything valuable to say about crushing socio-economic realities that are at play in his story (which bares a lot of timely relevance now).  The dilapidated neighborhood that the Airbnb resides in is used more as an atmospheric prop than it is to provide some insights into what's actually happening to many impoverished people in Detroit (also, another question, how did such an outwardly and inwardly gorgeous rental home get the go-ahead for sizeable renovations in this questionable area of town and why did a person as relatively shrewd as Tess not vet this area before renting a home in it?).  There's almost too much imbalance present in BARBARIAN to warrant a recommend, but on the pure strengths of what Cregger brings to the table as a promising new director and how undeniably superb and frightening his film is during its compelling setup phases I feel the need to say that this is must-watch material...but with reservations (no pun intended). 

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