'Barbarian' Review: Horror That Tells You Not To Go Into The Basement
Do you ever get the feeling that things might be changing in a way that each passing day, you're less likely to use shared economy housing? To help you in that is yet another short-term rental horror in Barbarian, written and directed by Zach Cregger who's taking the solo director reins for the first time. A young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives in middle of the night to a rental house in Detroit in anticipation to a job interview next morning in the city. After she finds that there is no key in the lockbox, it is revealed that the house has been double-booked when a young man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) opens the door and lets her in to sort out the situation. With nearby hotels booked and rain pouring down, they end up sharing the house for the night before horrifying mysteries about the house's basement start to make noise next day, inviting the presence of Hollywood actor AJ (Justin Long).
There's an inherent frustration that comes with a film like Barbarian, where it very much succeeds because of its tonal shifts and tempo changes but you can't really talk about them in detail because it would ruin the surprise factor. With that said, it's also a sign that Cregger has made something that is much more interesting to talk about than nearly any other contemporary horror titles, or even new movies in general. His screenplay is the true rockstar here, playing with audience's expectations skilfully, as shown for example in the first act's conversations between Tess and Keith where you're definitely wired to not trust Keith, yet you feel the sense of danger weakening as he technically says and does a lot of the right things.
For more knowledgeable viewers, casting director Nancy Nayor and Cregger's choices of actors also helps with dread and awkwardness in those moments, as well as when Long's character shows up. That hard cut along with arrival of Richard Brake's character called Frank exemplify how much potential Cregger has—in horror-thriller genre space at the very least—since the expressed levity and anticipation of frights support each other so well.
In terms of how Barbarian serves as a showcase despite a really entertaining script, there are moments where rules of this situation are disregarded a bit too much, mainly when characters' awareness and physicality are altered to fit the film's less inventive finale or trajectory towards it. When you mess with those, you end up altering performances, like Campbell and Long's in this case, so much so that their characters become more passive than necessary. Still, the firm grip on entertainment value, tone and DoP Zach Kuperstein's active camera work suggests that the flaws are only small growing pains and you don't think about them when you're busy exploring the basement and depraved humanity which lies in there.
Smileys: Screenplay, tone, casting, atmosphere
Frowneys: Some issues with directing and acting
This could happen to the breast of us.