It's too bad that it stopped being fashionable to make horror titles out of negative imperatives because Barbarian would have been a prime candidate for that. Just as '70s fright fare like Don't Look in the Basement and Don't Open the Window (aka The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) sought to alarm audiences before they even stepped into the theater with titles that promised dire consequences for anyone who did what they said not to do, Barbarian has a couple of important don'ts to offer. For starters, Don't rent an Airbnb and Don't go in to any unfamiliar basements. To get into even greater specifics, Barbarian is adamant that you Don't enter any hidden tunnels. Not even one step. Nothing good is ever at the end of them. The most important don't of all with Barbarian, though, is to Don't Miss It. This is one of the best horror films of the year.
The word on Barbarian is to go in to it knowing as little as possible. This suggests that this is some sort of twisty, M. Night Shyamalan construction with a whiplash inducing climatic revelation but it isn't. There is no big third act surprise that upends everything we've seen up to then. The bare bones of Barbarian, if you lay them all out, are actually fairly conventional. It will spoil no one's enjoyment if they know going in that there are hints of The People Under the Stairs and Castle Freak here. What makes Barbarian so thrilling is the choices that writer/director Zach Cregger (a founding member of the NYC-based comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U' Know) makes in telling his story. Full spoilers from here on out so Don't keep reading if you haven't seen Barbarian.
Barbarian begins with Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) arriving late on a rainy night to the home she's rented while she's in Detroit for a job interview only to find that a young guy named Keith (Bill Skarsgard) is already there. Tess and Keith went through different apps to rent the property and it has been inadvertently double booked. Cregger does nothing to tip his hand in this early stretch as to what is going on. Tess is understandably wary about Keith and while Keith is slightly awkward and jittery, we don't know if he's a threat to her. Their interactions and the gradual warming up that takes place between them has no hint of horror movie cues. We know that we've come to see a horror movie so something must be off but Cregger is counting on the audience, with no special prompting from him, to wonder for themselves where the danger lies. It shows his confidence as a filmmaker to have an extended opening to a horror movie where no horror is taking place and it is just two people talking and getting to know each other.
The standard move with this movie would have been to start off with a grabber of an opening. According to formula, there should have been a pre-title sequence of a young woman arriving at the Airbnb and falling afoul, after a prolonged and suspenseful set-up, to some brutal attack. She screams, the title Barbarian slams onto the screen and then we see Tess arriving at the same place with on screen text reading, say, "Four Weeks Later." After having hooked the audience right away with a big scare, things could have taken a breather as Tess and Keith meet, knowing that the audience would still be buzzing from the opening, but Cregger does not do that. Not only does he not do that, he does not indulge in cheap jump scares or give any indication of what looming threat is out there or when it might strike. A lot of horror films are made with the belief that the audience will lose interest if they aren't constantly being pounced on by the filmmakers so the restraint that Cregger shows in this early stretch is admirable.
The first act ends on a grisly cliffhanger but rather than immediately follow up on that and keep the momentum going, Cregger cuts to the introduction of Justin Long's character of actor AJ Gilbride. AJ is driving his convertible in the bright California sun when an incoming conference call delivers the news to him that an actress involved in the series he's working on has accused him of sexual assault. We stay with AJ and his story for a long time before we find out how he connects to Tess and Keith and to the Airbnb. Structurally, this is such an unconventional choice. Cregger places his main character in deadly peril at the end of Act 1, then abruptly leaves all that hanging to veer off into what feels like an entirely different movie, without a hint of horror. Now we suddenly find ourselves adjusting to a new storyline about an actor facing assault charges and losing his career. It's a jarring transition that forces us to pay attention and recalibrate because we know that this must connect somehow with what we've been watching up till now. On one level, this narrative shift gives the audience some relief because for the immediate moment it gets us away from the horror but yet on another level it only increases the tension because we know that we're not off the hook at all. Even though we've been transported to a sunny California road, we're inevitably only going to get dragged back into that house of horrors. The question is just a matter of how.
When we discover that the Airbnb is a property that AJ owns and that he is going to stay there to get out of the shit storm consuming his life in LA, and to start selling his properties in order to keep money coming in, things start to come together. But even then, Cregger doesn't go the obvious route. Yes, AJ discovers that his property includes a series of hidden tunnels behind a secret door in the basement but rather than greet this discovery with a sense of dread or alarm, he immediately sees it as an opportunity to increase the value of his property by being able to list the additional square feet. This is one of the most inspired character bits in any movie, horror or otherwise, in I don't know how long. It's hilariously funny but entirely in character and it roots everything in identifiable, pragmatic, everyday reality.
Before long, AJ's dreams of squeezing more value out of his property are gone because he's trapped in a pit with Tess, who we find is still alive, and the're both at the mercy of a psychotic, feral female that dwells in the tunnels under the house. But just as these two have finally come together and might be in a position to help each other, the action then cuts again to a back story that fills us in on how all the sick shit in this house came to be. Again, Cregger pulls the rug out from the viewers, forcing them to get their bearings. These sudden shifts in the story fly in the face of the relentlessness that horror films usually strive for. Cregger keeps bringing the audience to a climatic moment only to yank them away and force them to start over. It's these deliberately disorientating structural choices that make Barbarian so unique.
When we do return to the present day, the final act continues to offer surprises right up until the end. Unexpected decisions are made, opportunities for rescue and assistance don't play out in obvious ways, and characters continue to surprise us. Tess and AJ both make choices that take the action in directions that are impossible to anticipate. Tess, by being far more altruistic at various turns than someone in her circumstances might be, and AJ by being self-serving but with the underlying question of whether redemption is a possibility for him. It was an inspired move to cast Justin Long, a naturally likable actor, as AJ so no matter what lines he crosses, it always seems plausible that he'll ultimately end up doing the right thing. And when outside forces like the police or a local vagrant are introduced, their involvement does not provide the automatic relief that we expect it to but the ways in which those hopes of assistance are dashed or defeated are unpredictable.
The recent Bodies Bodies Bodies was a clever, genre-bending exercise that, for me, didn't quite deliver the goods. It was a movie where you could perceive and acknowledge the clear intelligence behind it but still feel shortchanged by the movie overall. Barbarian, on the other hand, is every bit as clever in how it subverts genre expectations but it also gives the exploitation crowd everything that they came for. Cregger knows that when it comes to horror, the bottom line is you've got to deliver. You can be clever as you want but you also have to know you're playing to a crowd wants to see, say, a dude getting beaten to death with his own severed arm. But yet as grueling as some of the content of Barbarian is, Cregger also maintains a sense of fun throughout with the film's more unsavory elements left largely to the imagination. There is a moment where AJ comes across VHS tapes whose hand-written labels tell us all we need to know to be chilled. No need to see their contents. And I guarantee that no one who watches Barbarian will ever look at a baby bottle the same way again.
For a first time horror director, Cregger shows a natural instinct for how to satisfy the commercial demands of the genre while also breaking from convention. We can immediately add his name to the current list of creators known for comedy who have shown an aptitude for horror. I only hope that, like Jordan Peele and David Gordon Green, Cregger will choose to stick around and make horror his home. What he's done with Barbarian is so fresh I have to imagine he's got much more up his sleeve. And I'm not talking about Barbarian 2.