By: Rory Ott
Barbarian, writer-director Zach Cregger’s first horror credit after spending much of his career in comedy, is a squeamish and refreshing cult classic in the making. Beware of mild spoilers ahead.
I planted myself in the theater expecting a more traditional horror film, albeit with a modern twist. A savvy young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives—alone–at an Airbnb in a seemingly innocuous neighborhood in Detroit, only to discover that it’s been double booked by mistake.
Her unlikely roommate, Keith, seems earnest, if awkward, yet anyone familiar with the genre can’t help but be suspicious; Bill Skarsgård is best known for playing the titular clown from It (2016), as well as starring in more obscure horror roles in Hemlock Grove, Villains, and Castle Rock—a notorious filmography, to be sure. Campbell’s credits include titles like Broadchurch, Flowers, and Krypton; this is her first real foray into horror, but she has undeniable “final girl” energy.
The first act instills a brilliant sense of dread, from the heart-pounding score to Tess’s slow realization that she got herself into something very, very bad. You don’t need to suspend your disbelief for the seemingly dubious premise; Barbarian is self-aware, and so is she. After all, the movie sprung from a thought Cregger had about women ignoring their subconscious red flags, a short film idea that snowballed into this beautiful monster of a sleeper hit.
Tess’s first big clue is when she wakes up the morning after she arrives, running late for a job interview, and realizes that every home in the neighborhood is condemned except for her cute little Airbnb. It was raining hard the night before, obscuring for her the unseemly aspects of the homes and equally derelict cars lining the street. It’s a cold jolt of a moment, proof that scenes in the daytime (an idea most recently posited in Ari Aster’s bright, cruel Midsommar) can scare the crap out of an audience, too, and it’s smart as hell.
Cregger shows his love for the classic horror tropes—there are plenty of ‘Don’t go down there!’ moments to chill your blood, and plenty of jump scares to get your heart racing. Still, he could (and should, he really should) easily establish himself with more daring, experimental creators like Ari Aster and Jordan Peele. Good horror should have a bite of social commentary to it, and this one has plenty as an unexpected reckoning on both toxic masculinity and rape culture. Barbarian is damn good, it’s fresh, and it’s shocking.
Trust me: you are not prepared for where this movie will take you. In a season usually saturated with cheap thrills like Annabelle and whatever number the long-winded Halloween franchise is on now, this one is a much-needed kick in the teeth. Worth the ticket, bucket of popcorn, and large Coke—just make sure you bring a friend, someone you can whisper ‘What the ****?’ to several times throughout. 4.5/5