For moviegoers looking to kickstart the Halloween season, it’s unlikely there is a better film to see in the cinema this weekend than Barbarian (Directed by Zach Cregger, Distributed by 20th Century Studios). In town for a job interview, a young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb late at night only to find that her rental has been mistakenly double-booked and a strange man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already staying there. Against her better judgement, she decides to stay the night anyway, but soon discovers a bizarre underground tunnel system in which there is much more to be afraid of than Keith…
Zach Cregger’s second feature film (after the historically buried sex comedy Miss March) is possibly the auteurist horror film of the year with its non traditional story structure and perfectly timed gross out moments; which practically beg to be experienced with a crowd who know nothing about what’s coming next. Zach Kuperstein’s cinematography and camerawork builds a palpable atmosphere from the moment the movie begins, and despite most of the scares taking place in almost complete darkness; you can always tell what’s happening visually, which is a real accomplishment. Personally it brought to mind Pedro Luque’s work on Don’t Breathe (2016). While unfortunately the end payoff leaves something to be desired, the film holds some striking imagery and shocks that will surely spark conversation amongst audience members.
Tess (Campbell) and Keith (Skarsgård) eventually cross paths with a shady television director (Justin Long) who actually owns the troubled property and is looking to liquidate his assets. This provides one of the most refreshing sequences in the film in which he hilariously attempts to measure the square footage of the creepy underground tunnels to maximize his revenue. “The anatomy of a joke is almost the same as the anatomy of a scare. It’s all about building tension, building tone, it’s all about timing. I feel like I’ve been kind of working on this for a long time” says Cregger in a recent interview. Best known for his work on the infamous sketch comedy show The Whitest Kids U’Know, I don’t think it’d be distasteful to draw a comparison between Cregger’s return to the directors chair with Barbarian and Jordan Peele’s horror debut Get Out (2017). Both seem to have an interest in the tension and release that comes with blending horror and comedy.
Barbarian takes place in Detroit, MI and while certain moments were indeed filmed on location, most of it was filmed on a single city block in Bulgaria where the crew erected 13 houses and re-purposed them for the films various set pieces. Without spoiling anything there is a flashback sequence involving character actor Richard Brake which is both expertly staged and eludes to some deeper themes regarding the Detroit white flight and social/economic decay. The camerawork in this sequence is once again fantastic and echoes the work of the great Dean Cundey who shot many John Carpenter films including Halloween and The Fog. If the script had expanded upon this character a little more, I think Barbarian could have been one of the great modern horror films.
Despite the narrative shortcomings in the final act, the first rate performances from Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and Justin Long help ground this seemingly De Palma-esque thriller before launching it far off into full blown creature feature territory. At the end of the day, genre fans have been treated very well so far this year with the likes of Ti West’s X, Jordan Peele’s Nope, and now Zach Cregger’s Barbarian. The film holds a lot of divisive material which builds and builds until the script can no longer contain it, and the result is certainly imperfect but impossible to look away from. Showcasing a unique madness which is seldom given the big bucks to run wild in Hollywood. Highly recommended, but your mileage may vary.