Sublimely sinister, savvy and smartly executed, this creepy flick about an Airbnb mixup is one of the best horror movies of the year.
October 14, 2022
UPDATE, December 23, 2022: Barbarian is available to stream via Disney+ from January 4, 2023.
"Safe as houses" isn't a term that applies much in horror. It isn't difficult to glean why. Even if scary movies routinely followed folks worrying about their investments — one meaning of the phrase — it's always going to be tricky for the sentiment to stick when such flicks love plaguing homes, lodges and other dwellings with bumps, jumps and bone-chilling terror. Barbarian, however, could break out the expression and mean it, in a way. At its centre sits a spruced-up Detroit cottage listed on Airbnb and earning its owner a trusty income. In the film's setup, the house in question is actually doing double duty, with two guests booked for clashing stays over the same dates. It's hardly a spoiler to say that their time in the spot, the nicest-looking residence in a rundown neighbourhood, leaves them feeling anything but safe.
Late on a gloomy, rainy, horror-movie-101 kind of night — an eerie and tense evening from the moment that writer/director Zach Cregger's first feature as a solo director begins — Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell, Suspicion) arrives at Barbarian's pivotal Michigan property. She's in town for a job interview, but discovers the lockbox empty, keys nowhere to be found. Also, the home already has an occupant in Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgård, Eternals), who made his reservation via a different website. With a medical convention filling the city's hotels, sharing the cottage seems the only option, even if Tess is understandably cautious about cohabitating with a man she's literally just met. Ambiguity is part of Barbarian from the get-go, spanning whether Keith can be trusted, what's behind their double booking and, when things start moving overnight, what's going on in the abode. That's only the start of Barbarian's hellish story.
Canny casting plays a considerable part in Barbarian's early unease; if you rocked up to a place that's meant to be yours alone for the evening only for Pennywise from the recent big-screen version of IT and its sequel lurking within — sans red balloon, luckily — you'd be creeped out. Skarsgård's involvement isn't the only reason that the movie's first act drips with dread and uncertainty, but it's a devastatingly clever use of him as a horror-film talent, and the Swedish star leans into the slippery and shifty possibilities. Still, after taking a photo of his ID and being wary of drinking beverages he's made, Tess warms to Keith over wine and conversation. He's having a loud nightmare on the couch, too, when her bedroom door opens mysteriously. When she gets stuck in the locked basement the next day, he's out at meetings. Then he returns, and they'll wish that a reservation mixup really was the worst of their troubles.
Clearly made with affection for old-school horror, especially films by genre great Wes Craven, Barbarian feels like a well-crafted take on a familiar premise while it's laying its groundwork. Foolish is the viewer who thinks that they know where the movie is heading from there, though — or who ignores the instant bubblings of potential to zig and zag, plus the lingering inkling that something beyond the easily expected might stalk its frames. Indeed, watching Barbarian recalls watching scary flicks from four and five decades back for the first time, a rite of passage for every horror-loving teen no matter the generation, and being gripped by their surprises. Cregger bundles in twists, but he also establishes a vibe where almost anything can shift and change. Two cases in point: when Justin Long (Giri/Haji) shows up as a smug and obnoxious Hollywood player with #MeToo problems, and when the 80s isn't just an influence in scenes lensed in a tighter aspect ratio.
Keeping audiences guessing is chief among Barbarian's games, and one it plays with glee and skill on Cregger's part. That's true when the film is nodding to other horror greats, as also seen in its Psycho nudges (side note: Skarsgård would make a great Norman Bates if anyone was to try remaking Alfred Hitchcock's classic again). It's also accurate when Barbarian is going all in on unnerving frights and inducing fear — the moment you think you know where the plot sits, it careens sharply, and the moment you think you know when the next shock or source of apprehension will arrive, and how, it flips just as boldly. He's co-helmed Miss March and The Civil War on Drugs before, but it's the filmmaker's background in sketch comedy (as a cofounder of New York-based troupe The Whitest Kids U' Know, in fact) that might underline his ability and willingness to turn wildly, and to make each pivot and leap pay off.
Jordan Peele took a similar jump and that's going swimmingly, as Get Out, Us and Nope attest. But Cregger opts for what might seem an unusual choice in these elevated horror times: he flirts with topical subjects and helms a movie with things to say, but layers in his many points rather than makes any one the main focus. It isn't by accident that Barbarian is set in Detroit, or in its Brightmoor area. The way suburbia can boom, change and falter under capitalism is firmly in the film's sights, as are the inequities in income in general, and at the heart of the short-term rental market — plus the fact that such services can virtually snap up entire neighbourhoods, price plenty of folks out of them, and see homes turned into cash cows at the expense of any sense of community. Cregger also muses just as savvily and bitingly on toxic masculinity and the roles it forces women into, such as victims, villains and simply constantly being on high alert, as Tess always is.
Splashing around an eagerness to keep challenging itself — including visually, with cinematographer Zach Kuperstein (The Eyes of My Mother) rarely using the obvious shot, and also ensuring every frame is taut and precise — Barbarian is deeply, gloriously and entertainingly sinister. It's meticulously and impressively executed, and also innately unsettling. It knows all the tropes and horror conventions that've filled films both spectacular and terrible before, and it knows how to toy with and subvert them, when to let them run their course, and how to make a movie that feels fresh no matter which of the above it's doing. And, in the process, it deserves to boost not only Cregger's career, but also the excellent Campbell's. Playing a memorable potential final girl takes fortitude (see: Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode again and again), and playing a character that's smart, determined, resourceful but keeps making questionable horror-movie decisions for understandable reasons requires commitment. Believing in Campbell as Tess, and in the attention-grabber of a flick she's in: now that's a move that's safe as houses.