Barbarian Review – A Berserk, Beast of A Horror Film

It seems almost unfair to review Zach Cregger’s berserk horror film Barbarian because it really is best experienced going into it knowing nothing. Cregger is best known for his comedic work including the TV series The Whitest Guys U Know but Barbarian proves he’s more than equipped to dole out twisty and twisted horror fare.

The setting is a house (476 Barbary Street) in a run-down area of Detroit. A little history about Detroit and its decline is warranted. Not only was Detroit one of the most racist cities in America it also employed a redline policy which segregated white neighbourhoods from black ones. In 1967 riots broke out leading to a bloody confrontation between police and black people. Detroit then experienced “white flight” in which white people left the city which was exacerbated by the decline of the automobile industry. Detroit declared municipal bankruptcy in 2013. Many of the outer suburbs of the city are delipidated ghost towns where the houses are empty and in complete disrepair. It is one of these neighbourhoods that the film’s protagonist Tess (Georgina Campbell) rents an Airbnb for a job interview with a prominent documentary maker.

Barbarian starts with the “it was a dark and stormy night” trope. Tess arrives in the middle of the night to the house she rented online. It’s pouring, she can’t properly see where she is, and when she goes to get the keys from the lockbox they aren’t there. No one at the property service answers her calls and she’s at a loss as to what to do. A light comes on in the house and she rings the doorbell to be greeted by Keith (Bill Skarsgård in some extremely canny casting). Keith has also booked the property and after some back-and-forth Tess decides to come in from the rain to deal with the issue.

Tess is no fool. As charming as Keith is, she’s wary. She’s left an unsatisfactory relationship and is hoping to reinvent her life in Detroit. Keith is almost too nice and accommodating and the audience is expecting things to go sour at some point. Cregger zones in on a cup of tea that Keith makes for Tess and Anna Drubich’s score plays to something sinister going on – but Cregger isn’t going to let the audience off that easily.

Tess decides to share the house with Keith for the evening after finding all other accommodation booked in the city due to a convention. They drink wine (which Keith makes a point of opening in front of Tess so that she can see that it hasn’t been tampered with – such is the life of a contemporary woman, and so too a contemporary man). The two actually have quite a bit in common. Keith has heard of the documentary filmmaker Tess is going to meet and is part of an art collective in Detroit which uses abandoned spaces as studios (Detroit is having a small renaissance in the creative world because artists are now gentrifying the beleaguered city).

Tess takes the bed; Keith takes the couch. A locked door opens unexpectedly in the night and Tess wakes Keith from a nightmare. Cregger once again messes with our expectations – Tess may not be in danger from Keith, but something is going on inside 476 Barbary. The next morning Tess wakes to find a note from Keith saying he had a good time and to leave the keys in the lockbox. She heads off to her meeting with Bonnie (Sophie Sorensen) who expresses concerns about the neighbourhood she’s staying in. Indeed, 476 Barbary is the only house in the street that isn’t abandoned and is in good repair. Tess explains she’s pretty resilient and things will be okay, but of course Barbarian is a horror film, so we know that isn’t going to be the case.

Tess returns to the house and finds that she needs to go into the basement to get some toilet paper. The door locks behind her and she’s trapped. She’s left her phone upstairs and in her rush to get into the house (a red herring of a man chasing her has occurred earlier) she forgot to leave the keys for Keith. She finds a hidden door which leads to labyrinthine tunnels under the house, including a room with a video camera set up trained on a stained bed. Eventually Keith gets back and opens the basement window. She’s freed and freaked out telling Keith they have to leave. Keith wants to keep spending time with Tess, so he decides to check out the basement. Whatever you think is down there it’s worse. Something happens and the screen cuts to black and we’re introduced to a new character.

The new character is AJ (Justin Long) a mildly successful Hollywood television actor. Driving his convertible along the California coast he takes a call from his agent where he learns that he has been accused of sexually assaulting his co-star for an upcoming pilot. AJ is suddenly (and deservedly) persona non grata in the industry and to avoid complete bankruptcy he needs to liquidate some properties he owns, including his Detroit houses one of which is 476 Barbary.

AJ is outraged to find that people have left behind stuff in his property and makes a series of outraged phone calls about it. What he’s most interested in however, is how much money he can make in selling the place. Even when he finds the basement and the signs of horrific things that are there his first instinct is to go upstairs and work out how much more money he can get with the extra square footage. Tape measure in hand he explores the tunnels and ignores all the warning signs that it’s a bad place. Eventually he too comes across the terror.

Barbarian is doing a lot of things; it works as a black comedy, an indictment on capitalism, a commentary about racism, and is an effective look at how women are preyed upon. Genre staple Richard Brake turns up in a non-linear flashback that gives some history about the house, but that history also plays into the film’s more serious themes.

Barbarian is shocking and effective horror that is amplified by the cinematography by Zach Kuperstein and the immaculate production design that shows two very different cities (Detroit on the rise, and Detroit in the suburbs) which is echoed in the immaculately outfitted Barbary Street house which hides the darkness underneath. Campbell is wonderful as the clever and resilient Tess. Skarsgård is extremely clever casting as we have come not to trust the actor from his previous genre work, and Long plays the reprehensible AJ to perfection.

Cregger clearly knows what he’s doing with a horror film. He’s absolutely aware of the tropes and pulls the audience in, tricks them, pulls them in again, and comes up with bizarre and visceral horror. There may be comparisons to Don’t Breathe but Barbarian is its own beast that not only delivers genuine scares but has a savvy social commentary that is in effect a horror story of its own.

Director: Zach Cregger

Cast: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long

Writer: Zach Cregger

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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