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Barbarian (18)

Director: Zack Cregger
Screenplay: Zack Cregger

Starring: Justin Long, Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgard

Review: David Stephens

In a pleasing reversal of situations, "Barbarian" is one of those films that was originally going straight to streaming (Hulu & Disney Plus, in case you were wondering) but got turned around to a theatrical release after positive test screenings and good word of mouth from film festivals (including Frightfest). It's actually the solo directorial debut of Zach Cregger, who also wrote the story. He's best known in the States for being part of the fringe group "The Whitest Kids U' Know" and for support roles in umpteen comedy films. However, this is most definitely a horror film, although it successfully highlights some social commentary and flirts with other genres for misdirection. Having already been released in the USA at the start of September, we Brits have copped it on the big screen a few days away from Halloween, which is a pretty cool reason for a delay actually, and has already built its reputation as a sleeper hit and a quality horror. The main thing to point out here, and something that has been mostly observed in reviews and articles, is that the viewing experience benefits from a lack of knowledge and any pesky spoilers that try and spoil your fun. Don't worry. None here. However, we will set up the scenario…


Tess Marshall (an excellent performance by Georgina Campbell) is on her way to a job interview in Detroit. She intends to stay locally during the process, renting a property in a nearby suburb via Airbnb. Arriving in the pouring rain during night-time, Tess finds the key missing from the lock box, and no one is around on the rest of the dilapidated street. Unable to contact the renting agency, she notices movement and lights inside the house. This turns out to be Keith (Bill Skarsgård. Yup. Pennywise in civvies), who is just as puzzled as she is about the situation. Both wary of each other's presence, they discover that its an admin cock-up and the house is double-booked. Despite her misgivings, she has little choice but to stay the night. However, as soon as she starts to feel comfortable with Keith … aaaand, we'll leave it there.


After some major league disappointments this year in genre cinema (stand up and hang your Shatner-head in shame, Michael!), it looks like the best movies are going to be all one-word affairs in 2022. "Men", "X", "Prey", "Fresh", "Smile", and now this. Because "Barbarian" is an excellent piece of work that shrugs off expectations, manages sly commentary, and still maintains a gripping narrative. As mentioned, the less you know, the better. This does make it tricky to sell the positive aspects, but "them's the breaks" (as an unwise man said recently). Suffice to say that it starts like a rom-com, but then Cregger throws a series of successive curve-balls that takes the narrative off into unexpected territories.

It has to be said that elements of the key themes are not totally original. But it's the way in which the plot weaves about and subverts tropes that makes it work so well. Dark room? "Nope" says the character. Not going in there until a makeshift lighting system has been Macgyvered. Does self-preservation come before helping others? Hell yes! Says one character by way of actions and intent. The set-up works so well because the narrative is smart, and it knows what horror fans are expecting from this type of film. Characters (mostly) act and react believably to situations rather than become stereotypes walking blindly to their doom. Campbell's character is so obviously wary and scared of her initial situation that it really connects with the audience. And that creates a lot of suspense and tension before we finally have revelations about the danger she's in, which is elevated by her pitch-perfect performance as the plot progresses.


It's all helped along by gleefully uncompromising misdirection, such as sudden scene changes, selfish actions, and nasty moments of uncomfortable "ickiness". The lighting and camerawork are also surprisingly good, providing environments for nicely orchestrated jump scares and viewing angles that mirror warped personalities and intentions. There is some neat social commentary squeezed in there (stop rolling your eyes at the back!) which is nicely done because … and this is important… it doesn't derail or interrupt the story like some examples we could think of. So we get some finger-prods about #metoo, gender stereotyping, and the death of the "American Smalltown" dream. Speaking of fingers… there's a huge middle one flipped at local US Police forces, which would be spiteful if not for the fact that it directly mirrors real-life events in recent years, especially in towns on the "wrong side of the tracks".


Apart from one sequence that defies the laws of physics and gravity and some general logic gaps, this is smart and entertaining stuff that doesn't treat its audience like idiots. There's even some unexpected emotion and empathy at the climax, along with well-deserved repercussions. It has a unique feel, like one of the grimier "X-Files" episodes crossed with the wacky melodrama of James Wan's "Malignant", and it's hugely enjoyable. Good choice for Halloween and a superior scarer. Nice one.  

Smart, subversive, and darkly funny, "Barbarian" is a trip into a mean funhouse of ideas that play with your genre expectations. Campbell makes a fine and relatable protagonist and is ably supported by the rest of the cast. Good scripting, cool plot swerves, and some grimy bloodletting makes this the choice film for Halloween on the big screen.
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