Zach Cregger’s Barbarian is the horror film of the year. Best experienced cold with no knowledge of anything beyond the basic premise, this is a film that will have you laughing, cringing and screaming in shock and awe.
In this day and age, it’s not easy to make a truly surprising horror film. Everything has been done and the audience has seen it all. So, Barbarian, which screened at this year’s FrightFest and will debut on Disney+ later this year, feels like a breath of fresh air.
The basic premise is simple enough: Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her booked Airbnb late at night only to find that Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already staying there. Keith invites Tess inside so they can figure out what to do.
That’s it, that’s all you’re getting and I thoroughly encourage you against finding out anything else about the film’s plot. Part of the fun is being surprised and having the rug pulled from underneath you several times.
Zach Cregger wrote and directed Barbarian and has made both jobs look easy. The script is particularly well assembled and Cregger has taken every precaution to craft an interesting main character. Horror films often produce brainless protagonists who have you screaming “Don’t go in there!” while pulling your hair out but Cregger does things differently.
Tess is careful, cautious and doesn’t take any risks. She is hesitant to go inside the house once Keith opens the door, but once she does, she still does her best to not get murdered by a potential psycho. She refuses wine as well as a cup of tea, takes a photo of Keith’s ID and keeps her guard up at all times. She isn’t a victim, but a smart, level-headed modern woman who simply knows better.
The casting of Bill Skarsgård is genius. Son of Stellan, brother of Alexander, Skarsgård is probably best known as Pennywise in Andy Muschietti’s It and It: Chapter Two. Just his presence is almost like a warning sign and immediately creates an oppressive, tense atmosphere in the film.
The best part of Barbarian is the carnage. And I’m not just talking about the inevitable, glorious kills – this is a horror film after all – but the way Cregger keeps reinventing his film. Barbarian may seem like one thing at the start, but it very quickly morphs into something else, an entirely different beast.
Gender and women are constantly in the centre of the Cregger’s film, who at the FrightFest screening described wanting to make a film from a woman’s perspective because it’s something he can’t ever experience. It would be reductive to describe Barbarian as a #MeToo film or a post-#MeToo film, because this isn’t a film that’s necessarily meant to be taken seriously, but to be consumed for entertainment. It still has plenty to say, but it never sacrifices its entertainment and shock value for thematic messages.
Both Campbell and Skarsgård are great in their roles, even if this is a film that is more focused on providing thrills, chills and twists than character development. Justin Long also shows up in the film as a welcome comic relief. It would be a spoiler to describe his character further, but all I’ll say is that he is frightfully good. His character is one that is easy and most importantly, fun to hate.
If something doesn’t work here, it’s the film’s treatment of race and class. It’s never really explored but by setting it in Detroit and in a certain area of Detroit, it feels like it should have been addressed at the very least. To his credit, Cregger carefully avoids demonising any specific group and keeps the action neatly unfolding around his central characters.
Gory, wild, triumphant, Barbarian is the horror film event of the year. Originally, Barbarian was supposed to go straight to streaming, but thankfully, a cinema release was announced. It’s such a rare treat that we get a horror film this original and unashamedly weird.
Barbarian is in UK cinemas October 28.