A woman in distress, an unfamiliar house and a creepy basement — at first glance, it may seem like Zach Cregger’s “Barbarian” is just another horror movie that begins with a vulnerable character making a bad decision. But to think you have “Barbarian” figured out by its premise is an egregious mistake when deception is the name of the game in this wildly twisted ride.
“Barbarian” opens with familiar horror fundamentals. Tess (played by Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb on a rainy night, only to find the home already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgård), another tenant who claims to have also booked the home.
For avid horror movie fans, the casting of Keith is already a red flag (Skarsgård most notably played Pennywise, the clown from 2017’s “It”), another indicator of what might go wrong. After a few failed attempts at finding a hotel, Tess decides to stay for the night, unbeknownst to the horror that lurks within the walls of her Airbnb.
The second and third acts turn the movie on its tail, jumping time zones and decades. Characters, like a disgraced Hollywood actor (played by Justin Long), a homeless man (Jaymes Butler) and a shady homeowner (Richard Brake) are introduced throughout the film to expand the story in abrupt, unexpected ways.
Revealing any more about “Barbarian” will simply ruin the fun. Cregger knows what he’s doing and what he’s created here is not your typical horror flick. Sure, there are cliches that present themselves in predictable ways: ominous self-locking doors, dark corridors hidden behind a secret entrance and questionable decisions that make you go, “Don’t go that way!” riddle the entire first act.
Yet, Cregger has crafted a careful guessing game for the viewer and he is the mastermind. Audiences will be kept on their toes with predictions and theories that almost never come true as Cregger cunningly subverts any and all expectations of his spectators. What you might expect to happen is a presumption that Cregger joyfully plays with. Going into “Barbarian” as blind as possible is the best way to experience this movie.
If you must know more and dare to peek inside the door of this haunted Airbnb, look no further than last year’s “Malignant” from director James Wan — “Barbarian” is just as camp, out-of-the-box and horrifyingly fun. Both movies blend fun and terror in a wild ride that is meant to be seen in a theater with other people (especially with the reactive kind of movie-goer).
Unlike most good movies, “Barbarian” isn’t necessarily asking to be taken seriously — rather, it invites you in for an entertaining time and it doesn’t need to be anything more. Yet, having a deeper thematic meaning with powerful imagery and symbols could elevate this movie to the likes of horror masterpieces like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” or Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.”
That isn’t to say that “Barbarian” is completely void of any societal messaging. The film covers how sexual assault, gentrification and ineffectual law enforcement particularly affect women of color in ways that are both subtle and horrifying. Still, “Barbarian” is not the kind of movie that requires deep metaphorical analysis to really appreciate it, though you can find some juicy larger meaning if you dig deep enough.
There’s much more to be said about the movie, especially after knowing the true nature of the horrors that lie in the Airbnb. But even if I could perfectly articulate what this movie is, absolutely nothing can prepare you for this viewing experience. One thing is for sure: wildly fun terror has never found a home in the horror genre quite like it does in “Barbarian.”
“Barbarian” is now playing in theaters nationwide. Rated R for nudity, language, disturbing material, strong violence and gore. Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes.