Synopsis – In town for a job interview, a young woman arrives at her Airbnb late at night only to find that her rental has been mistakenly double-booked and a strange man is already staying there. Against her better judgement, she decides to stay the night anyway, but soon discovers that there is much more to be afraid of in the house than the other house guest.
My Take – At first glance, this sleeper hit, which grossed over $43 million worldwide against its $4.5 million budget, seems like a regular horror flick which revels in the genre’s stock elements from a spooky house on a deserted street, doors that open and close on their own accord, to a woman calling out to confirm a invisible presence while standing at the top of a worn out staircase that descends into inky darkness. Forcing in an opinion that makes us feel that the premise is boring, overdone and barely scary.
However, it is also probably the biggest red herring of all time. As in a shocking turn of events, writer-director Zach Cregger‘s directorial debut somehow combines three vastly different styles of horror film making into an original romp that lives and dies by its own rules.
Wildly unpredictable, the film begins as a tale of awkward circumstance, before mutating into something intensely claustrophobic, satirically amusing, and in its best moments, both. The film’s unique structure sees director Cregger gradually piece together the overall story, building each intriguing aspect to a bold cliffhanger.
Each aspect not only sheds more light on the story, it also switches up the film that you think you’re watching and constantly keeps you on edge. Featuring a shocking plot full of unexpected twists, the uncomfortable pacing and time-bending jump cuts only add to the unease.
Yes, not everything works well, and a last-ditch attempt to bring it all together is almost too ambitious, but you can’t help but admire director Cregger’s audacity. Unsurprisingly, the film is also a somewhat difficult film to recommend, because it is something that is best seen entirely blind, with no knowledge or expectation or anticipation of what it actually entails. It is a film that rewards re-watching but is best seen for the first time with no foreknowledge.
The story follows Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) who comes to Detroit for an interview, and finds herself in a torrential downpour forced to share an Airbnb with Keith (Bill Skarsgård), a mysterious tenant who supposedly double-booked her. Without options, Tess and Keith share the night as Tess rightfully approaches the situation with buckets of apprehension, despite Keith’s assurances that he’s another good guy. Soon though, as the duo find some hidden passages, a video camera, and bloodied hand prints in the basement, Tess realizes that she might have a lot more to fear than her unexpected roommate.
The film has a neat and individualistic three-act structure. Each has a completely different mood, sometimes making you wonder if it is the same film you are watching. But it definitely compensates when the narrative seamlessly weaves together, especially in the third act. Along the way, director Cregger‘s screenplay does take swings that favor unpredictability over structural stability.
Tess’ anxiety-riddled introductory segment about Keith’s suspicious nice guy routine is just that, an opening that’s smash-interrupted by AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) in the following act. Storytelling jumps time passages forward and backward, focusing on characters in diverse periods that chronicle a Detroit suburb’s whitewashed beginnings to ramshackle and impoverished becoming.
The film’s rapid swinging between styles can be distancing at times, with shifts in narrative focus that often arrive just when the tension begins to crescendo. But these mildly jarring resets are part and parcel of the film’s devious game of tonal hopscotch, and director Cregger knows exactly how and when to twist each screw, reminding the viewer how funny, intense and disturbing a film can be, all at the same time.
But even though he plays fast and loose with tone and texture, the first act being rooted in a psychological thriller rooted in relatable reality, the second resembling a darkly humorous social satire, and the third a more traditional horror picture, the themes remain consistent.
And by the time the final act rolls in, offering yet another stylistic departure from what we’ve seen over an hour or so, you’re either going to be clinging on to the ride for dear life, or you’d have pressed the panic button and checked out already. Though the film isn’t horror-comedy, but it makes you laugh at its audaciousness, like the sequence involving AJ and a tape measure.
The film flirts with humor, offering brief, much-needed respites from the inexorable tension and touching on the question of whether an underground torture complex can be included as square footage on a sales listing. But for the most part, it’s one of the most effective chillers of the year. Especially as it nears its climax, the film leans into its own absurdity, building to a final act that is, quite deliberately, more silly than it is scary.
Performance wise, Georgina Campbell is highly effective and her committed lead turn makes us want her to survive whatever horror she faces. She’s supported mainly by Bill Skarsgård, whose the casting proves to be a masterstroke. Director Cregger knows we remember Pennywise and plays off the idea that we assume Skarsgård is playing a creepy dude.
Justin Long is brilliant in playing an against type character toeing the line between jerk and endearing perfectly. In other roles, Richard Blake, Jaymes Butler, Kurt Braunohler and Matthew Patrick Davis are effective. On the whole, ‘Barbarian’ is a twisty Airbnb chiller that is equally intriguing and terrifying to satisfy all your horror film cravings.
Directed – Zach Cregger
Rated – R
Run Time – 102 minutes