In my review of Orphan: First Kill last month, I found myself wrestling a conundrum: how does one meaningfully discuss a movie in which most of the interesting stuff happens on the other side of a major plot twist? This goes double for Barbarian, an even nuttier new horror film which hinges upon an even more audacious narrative secret– one which the trailer and all marketing materials are masterfully careful to avoid. As self-defeating as it feels to say at the beginning of my review, this is a film which should well and truly be approached as blind as possible; even a casual glance at the film’s IMDb page may verge on spoiler territory. As with First Kill, I’m going to do my best to avoid revealing any secrets, but consider yourself warned.
So what can I tell you? I can tell you that Barbarian begins as yet another entry in the burgeoning genre of “AirBnB horror.” Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Detroit rental on a dark and stormy night, only to find it already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgård); apparently the house was listed on two different sites, and the management company didn’t bother to remove it. Tess obviously has reservations about sharing a house with a strange man, but she has little choice: the rain is pouring, it’s a seedy neighborhood, the local hotels are all booked, and she needs to get a good night’s sleep for her job interview in the morning. And Keith does seem nice– he’s polite, funny, and accommodating of Tess’s boundaries and privacy. It’s just the little things that get to her: a sound in the night, for example, or an open door she knows she closed before going to bed. Then, when Tess accidentally locks herself in the basement, she discovers a hidden room with some… unsettling furnishings, which itself contains a hidden passageway into an even deeper, darker cavern. Tess, naturally, wants to get the hell out of there, but Keith insists on taking a closer look… and that’s about as far as this synopsis can take us. Suffice to say, if you have not been specifically spoiled, you do not know what happens next.
Barbarian was written and directed by Whitest Kids U Know alum Zach Cregger, who seems to be following Jordan Peele’s path from TV sketch comedy to socially-tinged horror cinema. Barbarian may travel to some unexpected places over the course of its 100-minute runtime, but it is at its core a film about the horrors of toxic masculinity. In the early scenes, as Tess assesses her strange situation, Cregger deftly places us in her shoes, emphasizing her array of instinctive defense mechanisms: closeups of her hands pressing the door locks whenever she enters a private room, an almost imperceptible furrowing of her brow when Keith offers to make her a cup of tea (in one of the film’s sharpest gags, we later see male characters blithely skipping past threats Tess catches in an instant). Even as she begins to let her guard down and venture into meet-cute territory with Keith, Cregger never puts us fully at ease; the film at times plays like a version of Before Sunrise that entertains the notion that Ethan Hawke’s character might actually be Ted Bundy (Skarsgård’s casting is a stroke of genius in this regard, his boyish good looks never quite letting us forget that he’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown). It’s too bad there’s already been a 2022 horror film called Men, because the title would fit Barbarian just as nicely.
But if this description makes Barbarian sound like yet another dour, it’s-about-trauma exercise in elevated horror, let me assure you: it is really, really not that. Like Peele, Cregger’s background in short-form comedy informs his storytelling. He knows how to hit a punchline, and understands the dizzying effect of jumping to the next gag while we’re still reeling. Comedy and horror run on similar engines of knee-jerk bodily reactions, after all. It’s not just that Barbarian is very funny, or genuinely shocking (though, to be sure, it is frequently both); rather, it’s that you’ll find yourself laughing because it’s so shocking, or shocked to find yourself laughing. Like the best horror comedies, the distinction scarcely matters.
What ties humor and horror together is the element of surprise, and it is here that Barbarian excels. There is a thing that happens at the end of the first act (which, again, I will not divulge here, though I suspect word will get out before too long) which is so unexpected that you might find yourself wondering if there’s been some sort of mistake– in the projection room, or in your understanding of the film, or in the fabric of the universe as a whole. Barbarian then keeps on throwing curveballs; every time you think you’ve gotten it figured out, the film will shift again and you will find yourself once again on unfamiliar ground. The result is so delightfully disorienting that even the most cynical Randy Meeks in the crowd will find themselves baffled as to what could possibly be coming next. I have seen hundreds and hundreds of horror movies in my lifetime, and the pleasure of seeing something new is downright thrilling.
Will Barbarian hold up to repeat viewings? I honestly have no idea; so much of the pleasure of watching it the first time is that of surprise that it’s difficult to say whether there’s enough substance here to sustain a second or third go round (though I would very much like to see it again in a packed house that doesn’t know what it’s getting into; even in my relatively sparsely attended critics’ screening, there was a good number of involuntary hoots and hollers). But even if Barbarian is only good for a single serving, that’s better than a lot of horror films– particularly studio horror, which tends toward the derivative and, increasingly, the dreary (looking at you, Antlers). Barbarian has to count as one of the biggest surprises of the year, and I eagerly await the reactions from people approaching it with no idea what they’re getting into; it may actually be the first film to benefit from Disney’s reticence to promote its 20th Century Fox acquisitions. If you find yourself intrigued, my advice to you is to simply go, and let this be the last piece of writing you read about the film. You’ll thank me later.
dir. Zach Cregger
Opens Friday, 9/9 @ Somerville Theatre (and most multiplexes)