Director Zach Cregger’s third feature is a tight, claustrophobic horror that starts strongly but descends into schlock and regrettable cliché in its final third. With surprises, compelling performances and strong visuals across the board, Barbarian warrants recommendation but with serious caveats.
On a miserable night in suburban Detroit, Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb where she is staying for a job interview with a documentary maker. But horror of horrors, the place has been double booked and Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already there. Reluctantly, Tess agrees to come in to try to sort out the mess, understandably wary of Keith. However, they gradually relax, agree to share the place with Keith taking the couch and Tess in the bedroom, and get their money back in the morning. After sharing a bottle of wine and discovering their shared love of documentaries and jazz music, there’s even a touch of sexual frisson between the pair.
It’s a brilliant way to open a horror film: the scenario is mundane and believable, more frustrating than scary but with an unshakeable sense of threat. Both actors are terrific but Campbell steals the show, carrying the film through even its lowest moments. The performances are made all the more compelling by superb writing where everyone acts completely understandably. The script flips an old horror cliché – don’t go into the scary house – by making entry the only viable option, while Keith awkwardly takes every reasonable step to assure Tess that he’s not dangerous, even opening the bottle of wine in front of her so that she knows he hasn’t spiked it. As the tension subsides, Cregger plays with the audience: when Keith jokes that he’s not a monster, a winking reminder of Skarsgård’s past role as Pennywise the clown, Cregger is signalling directly to us that sooner or later, the other shoe is going to drop.
Warning: Spoilers from this point
The marketing of the film has been just as smart as Barbarian’s first act. Trailers using footage only from the first third obscure the sharp turn to entirely new character, AJ (Justin Long), in the middle portion of the film. The introduction of a #MeToo-esque subplot expands upon the threat of sexual tension of the first act in an interesting way, but one which is fluffed when the final act descends into horror clichés and schlock. Similarly, there’s a theme of urban and suburban decay running throughout the film, underlined by a flashback to the 1980s which goes someway to explaining the horrors dwelling underneath the house. But again, Barbarian squanders the opportunity to explore its own metaphor with any depth or complexity; Nia DaCosta’s recent Candyman sequel tackled similar themes far more elegantly and without resort to the tired tropes that Cregger employs here.
On those tropes, measured by the creep-factor they’re certainly successful and the film crafts a lot of effective scares. Nevertheless, the film’s empathy with its monster, who is in fact a profoundly disabled woman (Matthew Patrick Davis) and the product of multiple generations of rape and incest, is undermined by the delight it takes in using her for schlocky gross out moments and sadistic comedy. It’s deeply disappointing that after all the originality and intelligence of its first two acts, Barbarian falls back on to the old cliché of abused and marginalised women as monstrous hags.
For all its crudity, schlock, which rests on the premise that the shocking, the tasteless and the base are fundamentally entertaining, can be tricky to pull off without falling into mean-spiritedness. It is usually a mistake to use schlock to try to make a serious point, a trap that Barbarian sadly falls into. A more sensitive film would better elicit empathy for the nameless woman that stalks Tess, but instead those moments of sincere pity for her are undercut by eliciting laughter and disgust. The film’s fundamental cruelty is further emphasised by its treatment of Andre (Jaymes Butler), a homeless black man who exists solely to be ripped apart. For a film that seems to think it is satirising the patriarchy, Barbarian delights in the misery of its marginalised characters.