I must preface this review by stating – I caution those with a genuine interest to see Barbarian (2022) to not read any synopsis of the movie. I will do my best to not spoil it (though discussing a film will probably do so). Genuine enjoyment comes from knowing very little of what is going to transpire on screen.
With that said I must confess, buzz for Barbarian had my hopes up. I love horror movies and I love the horror Halloween season. With all of the positive buzz I expected a subversive, genre bending horror thriller. A movie that would leave me haunted for days afterward. What I received was an exceptionally tight and nail biting horror short film in the first act. This was unfortunately immediately followed by a disappointing sequel turned morbid satire for the remainder of Barbarian’s runtime.
Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) rents out an AirBNB in Detroit to stay overnight for a dream job interview she has the next day. When she arrives in the pouring rain late at night, she finds Keith (Bill Skarsgård) already staying in the house. Upon further investigation Tess and Keith realise they’ve been double booked. Tess agrees to spend the night with this mysterious, likeable stranger – a decision that leads to weird and unsettling circumstances.
Jumpers beware, you’re in for a scare! There are quite a few jump scares in Barbarian. I can say as somebody who sees these as a bit of a horror filmmaking crutch – ninety percent of the jumps in the film serve the narrative and don’t feel gratuitous. Equally, the use of sound and the film’s soundtrack is excellent. It’s sparse when it needs to be and effectively creepy.
The first half of Barbarian isn’t just engaging, it is completely engrossing. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a horror film with such a tight and engaging script as this one. The performances do the writing credit. Georgina Campbell is a very effective lead, drawing empathy with each frame. Bill Skarsgård’s Keith is affable and charismatic. He brings a believability to the interactions between two people accidentally thrown together in an AirBNB for the night.
Like many other horror films, Barbarian relies on poor decision-making for the plot to move forward. This isn’t to say it isn’t warranted, often characters are put in such insane circumstances that they are left with little choice. Regrettably, there is some groan-inducing poor decision making on offer here, but the characters cross the threshold because the story has to happen. Regardless, people don’t get entangled in horror films by being smart. That said, there are many levels of stupidity in decision-making and this film features some absolute corkers, to the point where I think that director Zach Cregger’s sketch comedy experience was taking over the reins.
Qualms aside – as a horror film for the Halloween season it definitely fits the bill. Barbarian‘s first half is so good, it can be forgiven for the quirky mess that follows. Popcorn necessary, lights down, phones off.