Zach Cregger embraces high-concept horror in a twisted and campy thriller.
It can be hard to write about films sometimes. No mere words, no matter how witty, insightful, or elegant, can truly capture the experience of watching the most surprising ones. Except for movies like Zach Cregger‘s (The Whitest Kids U’Know) new horror/thriller, Barbarian, which I can encapsulate perfectly with a few phrases:
Cuckoo Bananas. Balls to the walls craziness. Just plain coconuts.
Barbarian is the type of high-concept horror movie that fully embraces the outlandishness of its premise. The result is a high-camp thriller that is sometimes suspenseful, funny, gross, and even a little scary. In a horror landscape littered with art horror indie flicks or another entry into the bloated corpse of the Conjuring franchise, this is a lighthouse that will (hopefully) guide horror trends into something a little more daring.
But while Cregger goes all out with the premise, the film’s true nature is a slow reveal. It starts respectable enough: Tess (Georgina Campbell) shows up at an Airbnb on a rainy night, only to find that the house was double-booked and is occupied by a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). Against her better judgment, Tess decides to stay the night, with Keith sleeping on the couch. Despite her original apprehension and some late-night weirdness, Tess and Keith form a friendship, but all that comes to an end when Tess discovers a shocking secret.
And that’s all of the plot that I’m going to describe. Trust me when I say you must come into this as blind as possible. Don’t read any plot synopsis or watch YouTube videos, don’t even look at the cast list. Just see the film. The only mild spoiler I will give is that there is a subplot that revolves around sexual assault that happens offscreen, so if that’s a trigger for you, I would recommend skipping this one out.
Fortunately, while limiting myself to the first forty-five minutes of Barbarian, it gives us a lot to work with, particularly with its leads. Campbell and Skarsgård have great chemistry, with a mix of apprehension and sexual tension between two people who are attracted to each other but are in a situation where they can’t be entirely comfortable.
The pair are great on their own as well. Campbell is a great scream queen, resourceful and tough when needed, but she still has enough vulnerability that we are still scared for her when things go south. Skarsgård is a bit more ambiguous, fittingly. At times he’s awkward, and his line delivery feels forced, at other times, he exudes a natural charm, yet he can also be forceful and cold. We never get a real grasp of him, which builds on the tension in the first act.
Anna Drubich’s score adds to the tension, which does much of the heavy lifting in the first act. The opening scenes are filled with discordant choral music and sizzling synths that fill you with dread even if you don’t know what’s happening. Many of Drubich’s choices are a bit obvious, but they work, and that’s all that matters.
Zach Kuperstein’s cinematography is also tremendous and straddles the line between realism and stylization. It’s not uncommon for the cinematography to go from grimy gray to colorful and lush. Most impressive is the use of light and shadow, with figures obscured in darkness in a way that increases the scares while still being visually attractive.
While the score and cinematography help amplify a feeling of horror, the scares are genuine, and I did scream a few times during my screening. Cregger’s film relies on jump scares but is well-crafted and doesn’t feel cheap. While not gory throughout, there are moments of violence that are visceral and over the top enough that those with a strong stomach will get a kick out of them. Most frightening, however, are the things unseen: a bloody handprint on a wall, a man unlocking a window, a character reacting to a video we aren’t privy to. There are things implied by Barbarian that are way more chilling than a severed limb or a scary figure jumping at you, and seeing the aftermath is enough to form a pit in your stomach.
Much of this horror lies in men wanting to exert power over women and their casual disregard for their fear. The plot is set in motion when Keith disregards Tess’ fear. She knows something is wrong, but he subtly forces her to do things she doesn’t want to while trying to dismiss her feelings. All of the men in Barbarian are in some ways self-centered, and they often ignore Tess’ insights and hesitancy, which often leads to catastrophe.
While Cregger explores gender politics in some exciting ways, his intentions can sometimes feel hollow when Barbarian goes total grindhouse craziness. The script broaches topics like rape culture and gaslighting with aplomb, but this is still a movie where a man is beaten to death with his severed limb.
I can forgive Barbarian for not being the most profound movie, but it makes up for it by being oodles of fun. With its crazy twists and penchant for camp, it’s already been compared to James Wan’s bonkers Malignant. While the audience for Malignant and Barbarian overlap, the latter is a somewhat darker film with a slightly more grounded horror than the horror fantasy of the former. Barbarian may delve into some darker waters, but it keeps afloat by being over-the-top.
Barbarian throws you for a loop and makes you hoot and holler in theaters September 9th.