What can be said of a horror film whose plot subsists on huge story swings and plot turns that simply cannot be spoiled? Maybe not much unless it can be expressed in a clever manner. Writer/director Zach Cregger (Miss Match) gets it, his sense of construction recognizes the blueprint of a normal plot layout. And then, he becomes inventive, looking to surprise not just an audience, but himself in the process. Going in completely blind on his most mainstream feature to date certainly helped. Barbarian easily demands a blank slate for the highest effect, going gruesome, disturbing, stunning, but always lively. That last adjective is perhaps its brightest bit of revelation.
This wild trip starts out innocuously, and not too far off the ground. It’s a rainy night in Detroit, and young career woman Tess (Georgina Campbell) is looking to excel in a promising job interview, one for a research position with a noted documentarian. The night before, she looks to rest up in her rental home, with two catches. One, it’s raining like crazy. Two, the house is double booked, with its second occupant Keith (Bill Skarsgård) having arrived before her. Against her better judgment, and knowing she’d have no luck with any hotels in the city (there’s a major convention occurring), she decides to share the space with this stranger.
The pair build a camaraderie, Keith popping open a bottle of wine, Tess curious about her one-off roommate’s backstory. That is until secrets emerge about the house, a potentially cursed hovel with underground tunnels and a stunning history, shared between one of its managers, a Hollywood hotshot (Justin Long), and its original owner (Richard Brake). How they’re connected, I could not say, if only to respect Cregger’s dexterous misdirection. He’s like a street magician, performing his tricks with the faintest strain of humorous irony. A byproduct of his days in sketch comedy (anyone remember The Whitest Kids U’ Know?), his trickery looks to stun, not shock. Only to have a wave of witty rectitude undercut the tension.
Not that anything occurring within Cregger’s playbook could be considered moral or righteous. The very house Tess and Keith occupy is the one pristine spot in a neighborhood otherwise rocked by gentrified, apocalyptic ruin. The one safe harbor in a fully discarded wasteland. Tess is quick to go all amateur detective, sensing these suspicions, these dark corners, as immediately as Keith’s gentleman-like gestures. He, in return, is cautious, riddled with a pang of sheepish guilt in the front half, aware of what boundaries are present. That alone does grant Skarsgård a welcome bit of fresh air, his slant on timid Lothario-type thousands of miles apart from his Pennywise.
To witness Tess’s descent into maddening curiosity, like if Alice in Wonderland collided with Craven-like atmospherics, requires finite alertness, a firm suspension of disbelief. Anything less would simply sour the moment, its bloodier escapades suddenly coming off pale and gratuitous. Thankfully, not the case, as perceptibility is tinkered with to a crazy degree, often on the fly. Even mere foreshadowing blooms on the screen with a mild what-if question mark, defying what could be predictable. The further Cregger rolls with this wave, continuing to negate rigid expectations right up until the final exchange of dialogue, the more fulfilling his experimentation evolves. It is all impossibly off the rails from start to finish. I’m not sure how I could‘ve kept my composure in its more visceral shots.
That very same mentality rubs off well on its ensemble, sending this plum piece of material to a heightened arena. Campbell is delightfully mesmerizing in the lead, sneaking in a few of her own subtle twists to challenge the standard “horror heroine” motif, translating hesitant anxiety into crafty problem solving, eyeing the gender structure in horror as a target to be pegged down. Long’s west coast dirtbag character, an embattled talent facing a private scandal, answers back as that antithesis. Not only serving as a comic punching bag, as much as he is also a counterbalance on the toxic masculinity scale. He’s overstepping with an eye for damage control, compared to Skarsgård’s sensible average joe. The type to overanalyze every generalization as his life depended on never misstepping. The efforts of cinematographer Zach Kuperstein (The Vigil) and composer Anna Drubich (Werewolves Within) effortlessly finish the hat, inundating every frame or ounce of natural light like it were a gasp of oxygen or a page taken from Carpenter’s sketchbooks. Essential to continue, and important to sell the emotion.
One could guess the precise direction of this story, be it a basic “final girl” tale or a haunted house wrought by an indescribable third party, and still prove incorrect. That might be the most rampant joy shared among a sparse critics’ crowd witnessing this gem, magnified triple fold with its eventual midnight crowd. That any suspicion or prediction uncovering Tess’s apprehension, Keith’s cucumber-like demeanor, and the mystery keeping them under the same roof would be untrue. Cregger soars in focusing on both the why and the how, the mechanics of notions altered by fact, and does so with an acerbic repartee. To a mind-blowing degree, there was a lot to take away from the complex, callous Barbarian. And much to enjoy in tandem if its self-aware attitude has any say. Not knowing at all what I had signed up for, I walked away with an affirmed resolve to chew on, confident the horror genre is ever on point in 2022, not lost on its surprise, nor its absurdity. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Barbarian opens in theaters September 9; rated R for some strong violence and gore, disturbing material, language throughout and nudity; 102 minutes.