Director Zach Cregger’s feature Barbarian transports viewers to an abandoned neighbourhood in Detroit, Michigan, where ignoring the seemingly sinister shells of long-forgotten homes is child’s play compared to what stalks the underground of a lonely Airbnb.
When Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at a quaint little Airbnb on a dark, rainy night, she’s more than surprised to find that – once she manages even to find the key, that is – someone else is already living there. Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is a stranger, and even though he appears friendly enough and goes out of his way to invite her to share the house until they can figure out what to do the following day, Tess is unsure about the whole situation. Keith goes out of his way to make Tess feel comfortable – he makes her tea multiple times and tells her to take the bedroom while he sleeps on the couch; hell, he even washes the bed sheets because Tess has a ‘thing about clean sheets. To Tess, it’s both slightly strange yet oddly amicable, and eventually, she finds herself building a good connection with Keith over a bottle of wine.
But the good company doesn’t erase everything unnerving about the house. Doors open randomly, plenty of shadows have gathered inside the two-story building, and her potential new boss tells her to be careful when residing in that neighbourhood. Tess isn’t quite sure what to make of this, but before she can chalk everything up to plain old weirdness and maybe paranoia, she ventures into the basement.
Hidden behind a secret hole is a damp, lightless tunnel that extends for miles and miles and miles beneath the house. There’s even a room with a bare bed, an old video camera, and grimy walls with a bloody handprints. Knowing just what such a place – such a prison – is often used for, Tess grows scared out of her wits and tells Keith they need to leave now.
If only things worked out as smoothly as that. It doesn’t take Tess long to discover that she put her fear in the wrong place – Keith is not the monster she should be running away from. No, that barbarian creature was made decades ago, and there’s no time like the present to snatch up brand-new victims.
Barbarian is the latest horror/thriller to cinemas this year, and though it borrows multiple tones and tropes from past films in this genre, it’s an exciting piece to watch, nonetheless. Right from the get-go, one can recognize the stylistic choices and background score as being reminiscent of the 80s; the “a crazy thing lives in the basement” modified from Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which ultimately revamped that plot line; the exaggerating of negative space and weird camera angles done to perfection in The Invisible Man, and the potential final girl venturing into the dark alone which comes from any horror film both modern and classic.
As is expected, the motivations of and how the monster came to be, are not explored in-depth. Instead, viewers are given just enough to conclude for themselves through a quick jump into the 1980s, where white picket fences and perfectly cut lawns can obscure the killer living next door. That said, Cregger does an excellent job of intertwining three subplots, which are slowly revealed much like peeling off a layer of skin – it’s chilling, and the tension is in-your-face palpable, growing and growing until we finally encounter the film’s grotesque villain. All the jump scares are great too. Moments of comedy are also interspersed throughout the 3-act piece, which makes sense as they help portray a particular character. This evident contrast renders the film more enjoyable, swinging the audience from one extreme to the next.
The cast is well-selected, but Cregger’s most obvious – and arguably his biggest pitfall – is that he’s managed to snag Skarsgård, the reigning king of horror but wholly under-utilizes his talents. After all, when we see Skarsgård on screen, we expect big things. The actor does his best with the role he’s been given, expertly arranging his visage into a combination of handsome yet ominous, causing the audience to question if he has a hand in all of Tess’ misfortunes; this does not happen. What a shame.
Sitting at a runtime of 107, Barbarian is the perfect length and will fit seamlessly into any spooky lovers’ horror lineup this upcoming Halloween. Just remember – if the basement is dank, with a single light that illuminates absolutely nothing, and the door just so happens to lock every time you use it . . . maybe you should rethink your plans. These days, taking your chances with the supernaturally grotesque might be more manageable.
By Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95