Nine months in and 2022 has been a fantastic year for horror. Nope, Fresh, X, Watcher, Speak No Evil, Pearl — the list goes on and on, and there are plenty more I haven’t yet found time for. The clear winner at present is Barbarian. It’s scary as hell, extremely funny, and behind it all there’s a pretty big brain to keep the shocks from being empty. Most importantly, at least as far as my own personal tastes go, Barbarian is fucked up. Deeeeply fucked up.
I once again lay the needle down on my broken record before we can begin: it’s best you go into this one as blind as possible. I won’t spoil, but if you want to go in tabula rasa you can stop at the end of the next sentence.
Barbarian is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time and you’d be dumb to miss it.
Georgina Campbell plays Tess, a woman who has ventured out to Detroit for a promising job interview. She’s staying in an AirBnb for a few days, but upon arrival she discovers that the house (the only well-maintained residence in a dying, abandoned neighborhood) has been double booked. There’s a man (Bill Skarsgård) already inside. This man, Keith, seems nice enough, but as expressed by our protagonist, it’s a much different thing for a woman to enter this situation than it is for a man. The interest in the different experiences of men and women when moving through the world is the first of many thematic elements which provide the backbone for the script, which also touches upon urban rot, gentrification, and, most importantly, all the little stories we tell to convince ourselves and our loved ones that we are civilized — that we aren’t barbarians.
Once Tess and Keith agree to share the abode, with a few ground rules in place, of course, what follows is a fun night for some new friends. They share some wine, surprise themselves with frank conversations, and retreat to their separate sleeping quarters. All in all a decent result for such a potentially dangerous situation. But it soon becomes clear that this little house holds a lot more than meets the eye.
The scares come in plenty of different shapes and sizes. There are a handful of jump scares (all executed flawlessly), and a wealth of imagery that is sure to ruin your night if you happen to look into that darkened corner of your bedroom. Notable is how, in a film that does not use a found footage framing, many of the scares are drawn from the found footage playbook. Writer/director Zack Cregger (yes, from The Whitest Kids U Know) is undoubtedly cribbing from the form. A somewhat early sequence in a darkened tunnel has as much fun with the scant lighting as it does the established visual geography of the setting. A few shots seem to have been captured via a body cam, even though there is not a body cam in the scene itself. It’s a brilliant application of a technique usually reserved for when the camera is a character. It’s extremely effective here, used to bring “haunted attraction” scares into a format that typically doesn’t hold them.
Barbarian is the type of film that defies description, mostly because it redefines itself at multiple distinct points, and does so in very big ways. It’s this year’s Malignant in that way, and also in the way its escalations are mostly indescribable. Frankly, you wouldn’t believe me anyway. The Craven/Hooper vibes are off the charts, but the film it reminded me most of sits well out of the genre. Remember Damsel from a few years back? Barbarian feels very akin to that in its themes as well as its sense of humor. Also in the dialogue. A lot of exposition is intuited through character, but in the few instances where someone explicitly dumps plot info, it all comes across smoothly, tying into the general themes. Namely, that we tell stories in order to understand and assuage our fears… but these are just stories.
Sorry. I just can’t spoil this and my back is against the wall here.
So in summation:
Barbarian is a deliciously perverted, clench-my-asshole scary slice of fucked-up-edness, presented via the strongest genre directorial effort of the year. If you’re a horror fan, it simply cannot be missed. See it with a crowd, and maybe don’t be alone afterwards. If anyone tries to spoil it for you, poison them. This would make a great double feature with The Rental.
This would make a great triple feature with The Rental and Watcher.
Directed by Zach Cregger
Written by Zach Cregger
Starring Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis
Rated R, 102 minutes