Unknowingly, I’ve been following the director of “Barbarian,” Zach Cregger, for a while. Part of the comedy troupe “The Whitest Kids U’ Know” in the early 2000s, Cregger worked with the late Trevor Moore and other comedians on a sketch comedy show airing on IFC.
These sketches dotted my adolescence as much of the world rediscovered the group — a particular favorite of mine being where an old friend runs into Cregger carrying a gallon jug of PCP. Others may recognize the comedy troupe from Trevor Moore’s “It’s Illegal To Say…” sketch, where he details ways to kill the president on television, getting away with it by prefacing everything he says with “it’s illegal to say.”
Other than comedy sketches and various long-form comedy projects, such as the film “Miss March,” Cregger hasn’t fully helmed a project like this. Horror is something that every director wants to try but isn’t always able to pull off. For instance, Jordan Peele has made three spectacular horror films, but Olivia Wilde wasn’t able to pull it off with “Don’t Worry Darling.”
But everyone is trying to be groundbreaking with horror. To scare people in ways that haven’t been done before. What if we just had a good, old-fashioned, dumb haunt?
That’s “Barbarian” — a movie that knows that it isn’t much, and doesn’t really want to be.
The film starts when Tess, played by Georgina Campbell, arrives in a run-down Detroit suburb to an Airbnb double-booked by a man named Keith, played by Bill Skarsgard. Neither of them could predict what horrors lay within the house — and neither could you.
As the film continues, its direction becomes more obvious, but every twist and turn is so completely out of left field that the narrative is a joy to unravel, even if it’s somewhat derivative at points.
As you follow various threads and theories about what’s happening, the actions of the beyond stupid, curiosity-killed-the-cat-like characters push you through an unendingly dark and foreboding atmosphere. It wants to make sure you’re afraid of the dark — if there’s darkness in the frame, you become acutely aware of what might lie within it.
“Barbarian” is laden with cliches but executes them in unexpected ways. A personal favorite moment of mine happens when our protagonist attempts to shine light into a dark room with a mirror by reflecting light from a different room. It’s a simple yet clever way to execute the typical “exploring a dark room” sequence.
The film is not without its flaws, however. The overarching modern slasher plot is interrupted by a flashback sequence that feels wholly out of place and unnecessary. Similarly, we encounter an interesting shift in characters near the start of the movie. The A plot consisting of the Airbnb characters jarringly shifts to a B plot following a Hollywood jerk named AJ, played by Justin Long. These plots eventually merge, but it still feels jarring. Sometimes “Barbarian” is afraid to commit to consistency, as if it’s fighting for the attention of the audience even though the main narrative is more than enough to keep the audience interested.
More than just being a modern slasher flick, it’s unapologetically stupid. The main villain of the film needs little explanation, though when it’s given, the short line of dialogue explaining that they’re just some crazy person is more than enough. I don’t always need an explanation, and I don’t always need subtlety.
Sadly, though, “Barbarian” tries to add a deeper message, and it doesn’t exactly work.
From the beginning, the film tries to drum up this message about sexual assault. At the beginning, it works pretty well. There’s this intensity surrounding this idea of the double-booked Airbnb. Will Keith do something? Is he a creep? It creates this tense atmosphere that I love — and yes, despite the bombastic nature of the rest of the film, it’s subtly done and works very well. But when it starts getting less subtle in the B plot, where AJ is overtly creepy, the message falls apart. The film’s lack of subtlety is a double-edged sword.
Overall, though, this film does what it strives to do — it’s a popcorn-horror flick that never fails to make me jump, cringe in my seat and make me say “Ughhh!” when something gross happens on screen. If nothing else, it’s fun, and I recommend seeing it with friends, maybe after having a drink or two.
Final Score: 7/10