There are two forms of successful horror film: one that plays the notes on the familiar scale of horror tropes and ideas, and one that is aware of those notes and plays around them deliberately, keeping you off balance. The latter form is much harder to pull off, as when it lands flat, you can feel audiences disengage and get frustrated with the filmmakers.
To say Barbarian pulled off this magic trick is underselling how enjoyable a theatrical experience it was. This wildly entertaining, formally inventive horror film will have you hiding between your fingers, cackling with glee, and clamouring to see it again all within its tight 102-minute runtime.
To set the table, we begin on a rainy night in a dishevelled area of outer Detroit. Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives alone at her Airbnb, only to discover the house has been double booked by a man (Bill Skarsgård). With as much of a guard as Tess can put up, she enters the house to get out of the rain as she just wants to sort out this mess.
The power of a great horror film is in its believable conceit, allowing the protagonist to become our avatar throughout the story. What feels certain from the opening moments of Barbarian is that writer-director Zach Cregger is making a film that is keenly aware of audience expectations at every single moment. With the success of Jordan Peele and now Cregger (who got his start with the online series Whitest Kids U’ Know), there’s something about being a sketch comedy filmmaker that clearly makes you keenly aware of what your audience expects from a horror film, and how to lean into or subvert those expectations.
This begins with the casting, perhaps Barbarian’s greatest strength. Georgina Campbell (known for her terrific performance in the Black Mirror episode ‘Hang the DJ’), as Tess, exudes stern confidence, making it clear from the opening moments that she is possibly within the framework of a horror film and working to prevent that from happening. She is locking every door she enters, with her guard all the way up. And then there is the casting of Bill Skarsgård, which allowed a level of subversion to take place within the narrative. Garnering a reputation as a horror villain icon, Skarsgård’s character seems keenly aware of this audience awareness and Tess’ weariness of the situation, attempting to put everyone at ease while also heightening the tension with his every action. Too many horror films are weighed down by the baggage of casting bigger actors, but in this situation, the baggage Skarsgård brings to the story only heightens the viewing experience.
Finally, there is the casting of the criminally underused Justin Long as the garbage person AJ. The less said about his character before audiences have seen the film, the better, but there is a surprising amount of social commentary being made in Barbarian that will be great to unpack at a later stage.
Barbarian is a rare type of gear shift film that makes you want to immediately return for another viewing. Perhaps due to its high level of craft or the stellar casting, Barbarian does not hang solely off its off-kilter structure the same way other similarly structured films do. I am hesitant to even use comparative films to talk about Barbarian, as it may give away some of the shifts that had the audience enraptured.
It can’t be stated enough how enjoyably bananas Barbarian is. Cregger builds tension to a perfect crescendo only to wrong-foot you on multiple occasions that will elate, not aggravate you. This is a film both intelligent and enjoyable enough to warrant a potential follow-up piece as it is increasingly difficult to discuss this film without specifics. Luckily it should arrive on Disney+ later in the year.
What stands out about Barbarian is the level of visual craft on display that is striking while never overwhelming. A beautiful visual motif is introduced with Tess reflecting sunlight onto a full-length mirror to illuminate what is essentially a dungeon inside this Detroit home, which follows through multiple levels of the film as we delve deeper. Just as Tess is illuminating a new area in this home, Cregger is illuminating new elements to this truly disorientating film experience. Barbarian is designed to spring new elements around every corner to shock and surprise the audience, something it achieves consistently over its entire runtime with a visual flourish that is always aiming to entertain the audience first.
There are rollercoaster films, and then there are films that give you an all-access pass to the amusement park. Barbarian is the latter. With a pitch-perfect cast and a surprisingly deft hand from Cregger, Barbarian is elevated to the best horror film of the year, and a must-see this Halloween.
Barbarian is in theatres now.