2022 has been the year of original horror movie success stories, and the latest entry to the spooky genre, Barbarian, proves to be another hit. Written and directed by Zach Cregger, the film is filled with gore, scares, and unnerving themes. But at its heart, the main takeaway for Barbarian is that Airbnb’s make for a great spooky setting, and being a woman, be it now in the modern day or during the blatantly sexist 1950s, isn’t easy.
Barbarian is a fast-paced story that begins with the ultimate modern nightmare – a double booking on Airbnb during a dark and rainy night. Documentary researcher Tess (Georgina Campbell) is forced to share a room with a stranger Keith (Bill Skarsgård), in a run-down and abandoned neighbourhood in Detroit.
While we’d expect the actor responsible for bringing Pennywise from the hit fantasy movie IT to be the cause of scares in this script, Creager’s genius casting, while keeping us on edge whenever the actor is on screen, ultimately defies expectations as he puts Bill Skarsgård in the back seat from the terror in Barbarian, with a new big bad monster stalking the house instead.
The longer Tess stays in the rented home, the more disturbing scenes she discovers. From cages to a hidden room, the house’s dark history begins to expose itself, and the two Airbnb guests get caught in a web of generational pain and horror. Flashbacks from the 1950s are thrown into the story to give context to the monster’s origins and the crimes inflicted on women over the years below the basement of the home.
It sounds pretty heavy, right? Well, an added layer of despair is chucked in for good measure once Justin Long joins the plot as AJ, the owner of the house. A Hollywood actor caught up in sexual assault allegations, he sets out to Detroit to sell his property to pay for legal fees, and like Tess, soon learns the dark truth of the home as well as meets the monster lurking in the hidden underground space beneath the home’s basement.
The thing about Barbarian is that it isn’t a campy typical popcorn horror movie like fans may have suspected, given Cregger’s past titles that include the 2000s movie Miss March. Sure it has a few laughs here and there, and the main monster’s backstory and genealogy is a bit of a stretch. Still, all these ‘silly’ and ‘unrealistic’ moments are largely overshadowed by themes of extreme trauma and general anxiety. At its heart, Barbarian is a story about women’s collective pain, fears, and lack of support in a society that doesn’t fight or believe in them.
With comments about the uneasy feeling of stranger danger, sexual harassment in the workplace, and even flashbacks to stomach-turning crimes in the 1950s, Barbarian is a nauseating watch that encourages general upset more than it does fun thrills. But, even though we aren’t left smiling, it is the film’s ability to affect its viewers that makes it a respectable horror movie worthy of the genre. At the end of the day, Cregger did his job; he made a monster movie that will cause some nightmares and will make you uncomfortable as you sit in the theatre waiting for the next jump scare to grace the big screen.
Fear comes in many forms, be it gore, suspense, or the grotesque, and Barbarian seems to tick all of those boxes. Onto of its themes, there are plenty of graphic deaths, and the cinematography feels akin to a Japanese survival horror game, as our protagonists navigate dark hallways armed with flashlights as a stealthy monster chases them from the shadows. In terms of scary blueprints, the genre is wholly understood, and Cregger’s sense as a spooky filmmaker should be commended. But saying all this, Barbarian is also packed with flaws.
The dialogue throughout the film suffers from an overload of needless exposition. Similarly, characters such as AJ reiterate the films’ themes around toxic masculinity and the #MeToo movement in a blatant and on-the-nose fashion. Nuance is completely thrown out the window, and due to the laggy speech, characters often feel lifeless and more caricature-like than three-dimensional.
Along with the dialogue, other writing faults include unrealistic interactions with the police once Tess confronts them about her ordeal, and there is also a needless character added to the plot, which essentially only acts as a warning post to Tess and does little else.
Barbarian isn’t perfect, in fact, it is downright messy in some places, but it is bold. Cregger has shown what he is capable of in the genre and how he understands action sequences and suspenseful tone. While his characters and dialogue often fall flat, Barbarian is a flick that shines with potential and still manages to stand as a worthy watch for any fan of the horror genre.
Barbarian releases in UK theatres on October 28, 2022. The film will also be available to watch on the streaming service HBO Max for US readers on October 25, 2022.
Barbarian is a wholly effective horror movie; it is just a bit rough around the edges too.