In Barbarian, Zach Cregger ditches his comedy roots and teams up with leads Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgård to create one of the most haunting horrors of 2022.
Having stayed in my fair share of Airbnbs on my own, Barbarian felt almost nostalgic at the start. I’ve had to frantically type in lockbox codes in the middle of the night in dark alleyways, and, when the code doesn’t work, you begin to panic. Most notably, I stayed in Brooklyn alone and the code to access the key didn’t work. It turns out there were two rented apartments in the same building, so I was typing the code into the wrong lockbox: a rookie mistake. When our protagonist Tess (Georgina Campbell) is on the outskirts of Detroit renting an Airbnb the night before a big job interview, the code to her lockbox doesn’t work at first, but when she’s finally in, there’s no key to be found. It’s late at night and the rain doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. Tess calls the contact number she has for the owners but there’s no answer. A light flickers on from inside the house, so Tess knocks on the window, and then on the door, to get the attention of whoever’s in the house. Keith (Bill Skarsgård) answers the door in pyjamas, half asleep. Both Tess and Keith have managed to book the same house on the same date.
Tess is a smart and quick-witted woman. Upon agreeing to stay the night in the one bedroom that happens to have a lock on the inside, whilst Keith takes the sofa, she takes pictures of Keith’s driver’s license, so she knows exactly who she’s spending her Detroit visit with. Her common sense leads her to never drinking anything that Keith has made without her being present whilst he makes it. To any audience, Keith appears a little strange. This especially rings true after he jokes that he’s ‘no monster,’ as many people know Skarsgärd from playing a literal child eating monster in IT. Tess has no problem trusting Keith a tiny bit more after opening a bottle of red wine together and laughing about their shared interests in Detroit based music. After surviving one night in the double-booked Airbnb, Tess goes to the most exciting job interview of her life with promising prospects for the future.
The trailers for Barbarian reveal little about the film’s actual plot. This works deceivingly well as you really don’t know what the 103 minute runtime has in store for you. If you haven’t seen a trailer at all at this point, don’t. Go in completely blind. If you’ve seen one of the many posters for Barbarian, you’ve probably stumbled across the one of Tess standing at the top of a long flight of stairs with a red background. The significance of the stairs is divulged later in the narrative, when the real horror comes into play. Taking a picture of Keith’s ID just so happens to be the least of Tess’ worries.
Director Zach Cregger is new to the horror scene, joining the likes of Jordan Peele and David Gordon Green, who began their careers in comedy but eventually transgressed into horror features. All three have really done something interesting within the horror genre, and, in Peele and Cregger’s case, created something unique. Green has expanded on the Halloween universe and is in the midst of creating a new life for The Exorcist. Whether you love or hate Michael Myers’ return in the latest Halloween trilogy, it’s exciting for horror to be continuing with fun new kills and allowing audiences to see Myers on the big screen. I’ll definitely have Cregger on my radar for whatever scares he brings next into the film world.
Campbell and Skarsgård are both great leads. Both are likeable, but, in the back of your mind, you’re trying to pick a side just in case one turns out to be the bad guy. Later in the film, we meet an absolute douchebag named AJ (Justin Long) and Long’s performance is unbelievably witty. Barbarian feels like a horror along the same sub-genre as Cabin in the Woods, where there is impending doom but it’s definitely a big character study at the same time. Many films never allow audiences to get to know the characters well enough to want them to stay alive, but I was rooting for both Tess and Keith even whilst trying to decipher if Keith could be the anti-hero this whole time.
The atmosphere is crucial in creating that perfect horror moment. There’s plenty of twists and turns that you never see coming, but even in the rare occasions of merriment, an overwhelming sense of dread is still upon the characters and even the audience. Barbarian’s cinematographer Zach Kuperstein fabricates such an eerie feel throughout the whole film. One of Kuperstein’s previous horrors, The Eyes of My Mother, is alarmingly disturbing and a lot of that is purely down to the cinematography. Visually, it’s one of the best horrors of the new millennium, and Barbarian, at this rate, is definitely going to go down as one too.
Whilst the whole of the US got to see Barbarian what felt like months before the UK, I’m so thrilled for it to finally be out in cinemas here. Seeing it on the big screen is a must, even if you’re tempted by the digital release. The unearthly concept of Barbarian needs to be watched hidden behind a box of popcorn surrounded by cinephiles so you can watch everyone jump at the scary scenes. Or, if you are someone who prefers to sit in the comfort of your own home for films, try watch it on your own and see if you can handle the horrors that lie beneath the Detroit Airbnb in my favourite horror of the year, Barbarian.
Barbarian will be released in UK cinemas on October 28, 2022. In the US, the film is now streaming on HBO Max.