Barbarian (United States, 2022)

September 10, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Barbarian Poster

For roughly two-thirds of its 100-minute running length, Barbarian is a top-notch excursion into the dark, twisty tunnels and catacombs of a mystery-cum-monster movie. The film’s overreliance on horror movie clichés during the final half-hour would be of minimal consequence to a lesser film but the strength of writer/director Zach Cregger’s vision as represented during the first two acts can’t avoid a letdown when it comes to the resolution. Sometimes that’s how it goes with horror, though – it’s easier to craft a compelling setup and put all the pieces in motion than it is to stick the landing.

In what might be a recurrent nightmare for those who frequently use the Airbnb service, Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her rental to discover that it has been double-booked. It’s late at night and, although the house itself is in good condition, the same can’t be said of the surrounding neighborhood. Fortunately, Keith (Bill Skarsgard), the other person who booked the stay, is a gentleman. He invites Tess in and allows her to get her bearings. She’s reluctant, unwilling to trust someone who seems a little too friendly, but agrees so she can get out of the rain and make some calls to find alternative accommodations. She turns down his offer of a cup of tea or a glass of wine. But there’s a major convention in Detroit and all the hotels are full so Tess has little choice but to agree to Keith’s offer to share. He’ll sleep on the sofa and she can have the bedroom to herself. They talk for a while and she starts to feel better about the arrangement – at least until she awakens in the middle of night to find her bedroom door inexplicably open and Keith in the throes of a bad dream.

There’s a point at which Barbarian could easily slide into rom-com territory but Cregger has bigger fish to fry. To go into specifics would be to spoil the surprises but suffice it to say that Tess and Keith may not be the only ones in the house, the creepy basement hides the entrance to a labyrinth, and those tunnels are the home to the kind of creature one might reasonably expect to find in a horror movie (as opposed to a romantic comedy). There’s a secondary storyline (not introduced until midway through the proceedings) featuring the owner of the house, the sleazy actor AJ (Justin Long), who is considering selling the place because he needs the cash to pay the lawyers who are defending him in a sexual harassment case.

Barbarian excels at its slow-burn setup. Tess is wary of Keith and viewers are on the fence about whether to take him at face value; the decision to cast Bill Skarsgard pays dividends because, although he gives off a nice-guy vibe, this is the actor who played Pennywise the Clown. Cregger, who comes from a comedy background, seeds the film with moments of dark humor but the most notable aspect is the mileage he gets out of using flashlights in dark tunnels. One trick of the trade that never gets old is the light going out just as something is emerging from the shadows. The music (credited to Anna Drubich) recalls John Carpenter’s secondary themes in Halloween with its percussive, dissonant repetition.

Although Cregger doesn’t re-invent the genre, he has a lot of fun twisting things, upending expectations, and keeping viewers off-balance – at least until the movie starts to build to a climax. In fairness, considering the situation, there aren’t a lot of avenues he can traverse but, in its final half-hour, Barbarian feels more generic than it does during its early segments. Horror tropes abound, although I’m certain a few of them are presented with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

For those looking for a subtext, there are messages to be found about female empowerment and urban decay. But Cregger doesn’t lean too hard into these. The images of the decayed neighborhood may not make residents of Detroit happy but they provide an unsettling backdrop against which events unfold. And, although it’s something of a stretch to understand how the house ended up being built atop a seemingly endless warren of tunnels, those offer a strong horror setting. As for creature design… at least Creeger’s monster hasn’t been inspired by Alien, Predator, or any of the other usual suspects.

Had the movie’s final third been as good as the balance, Barbarian might have taken its place in the Modern Horror Hall of Fame. However, although it falls short of that lofty goal, it still offers a solid 100 minutes of jump scares, plot twists, and things that go bump in the night.

Barbarian (United States, 2022)

Director: Zach Cregger
Cast: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgard, Justin Long, Richard Brake, Matthew Patrick Davis
Screenplay: Zach Cregger
Cinematography: Zach Kuperstein
Music: Anna Drubich
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2022-09-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1