Starring Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgard, Justin Long, Richard Brake
“Barbarian” is written and directed by Zach Cregger, a non-household name actor, jumping behind the camera in an attempt to deliver pre-Halloween returns for 20th Century Studios. What starts as an Airbnb horror movie, playing on our worst fears about staying in a stranger’s home, evolves into a distinctly unconventional horror film. The script is working harder to subvert scary movie tropes than simply being a solid genre flick. Scary house, rainy night, invited in by a seemingly harmless stranger, you know how this goes. However, the three-act film, running at a swift pace, throws a curve ball at the audience that will have viewers looking back at the projection booth for errors. “The X-Files” fans might rejoice in knowing that “Barbarian” comes about as close to a “Home” sequel as they are likely to get.
A mix-up at her Detroit Airbnb has Tess (Campbell) frustrated and without options in the middle of the night in the pouring rain. Her potential new employer warns her about staying on that dilapidated street in that part of one of America’s most dangerous cities. “I don’t know what the protocol for this is,” says Keith (Skarsgard), the first half of the double-booked property, who has already checked in. As Tess reluctantly steps inside, the overly apologetic, genteel stranger offers her a parade of niceties. When Tess returns to gather her things, the need for toilet paper will take her into the most disturbing basement the state of Michigan never knew it had.
We either have to believe that Tess...has never seen a horror movie or that she is a glutton for punishment.
Suspension of disbelief gets the better of Cregger’s script. We either have to believe that Tess, who is applying for a job in the documentary film world, has never seen a horror movie or that she is a glutton for punishment. She rarely trusts her instincts, says “nope” out loud to a darkened room, yet seconds later ventures inside. During the opening scene, Tess and Keith contemplate how both booked the same house; neither remembers the 24-hour Airbnb hotline advertised on the company’s app. The film accumulates too many faux pas, resulting in a lack of investment in the character’s well-being. However, the awkwardness between Campbell (“King Arthur Legend of the Sword”) and Skarsgard (“It”) is one of the film’s few charms.
“Barbarian” certainly offers its share of thrills but not intellect. Horror movie alum Justin Long (“Jeepers Creepers,” “Drag Me to Hell”) reaches for a very different role and performance. Audiences will not take Cregger’s attempt to time-stamp his horror flick with unrealistic police and #MeToo scenes seriously. So many of the character’s baffling decisions and the imagery surrounding the monster in the basement encourage laughter over gasps and exclamation over intrigue. “Barbarian” certainly scores unpredictability points for plot and narrative structure, but not enough to overcome the film’s poor execution.
Barbarian is unconventional but little else.