Outstanding! Each and every layer of this masterful horror film is crafted with care and precision. Barbarian strikes an uncanny balance of unsettling terror juxtaposed against clever irony and humor. Writer-director Zach Cregger delivers the best horror film so far this year, and among the strongest in recent years. Not only does the film boast exceptional shot composition, the screenplay is sleek and no scene goes wasted. The fine-tuned plot mapping and story structure provide a solid foundation upon which the thoughtful story is told. I heard some in the audience make statements related to the observation that this film is largely flying under the radar, but I posit that is a good thing. While I had only seen the trailer for this film in passing, I’m glad that I didn’t know more about the premise (aside from the AirBnb setup) because it may have detracted from the visceral experience of a film that has the soul of an arthouse motion picture but the high concept of a more commercial feature. If you see it before your friends, DO NOT spoil any of the twists or turns as this film should be appreciated for the emotional and physiological roller coaster that it is. My advice is go in as blind as possible. Oh, if modern horror films had already promoted you to question ever visiting Detroit, this film will convince you to avoid the motor city.
A young woman (Tess) discovers the rental home she booked is already occupied by a stranger (Keith). Against her better judgment, she decides to spend the night but soon discovers there’s a lot more to fear than just an unexpected house guest.
Simple plot, complex characters. The recipe for a great film! But don’t let the high concept outside-action story lull you into a state of projecting predictability upon the story. Just when you feel that you may have it figured out, Cregger throws you for a loop–a loop that was setup earlier in the film unbeknownst to you. Zach Cregger has demonstrably studied masters of suspense and horror such as Hitchcock, Argento, and Craven because he took the best parts of Psycho, Suspiria, and The Hills Have Eyes to create his original expression of tried and true tentpoles of horror. In an age wherein most features are remakes of previous motion pictures, this film serves as a reminder that there are fresh ideas out there to be expressed on the silver screen. And not just original ideas, but well-written stories with solid plotting that don’t leave you wondering what you just watched. Accessibility should never be thought of as lacking meaningful substance for those that want to read the film more closely.
Whereas I won’t venture too far into the story progression, I do want to comment on the opening scene(s) because it reminded me of Suspiria. What’s funny, is that I was wearing my Suspiria t-shirt last night to the screening. I liken the opening of Barbarian to Suspiria because of the central character driving in the rain to a house whereat there is no room for her accompanied by an ominous score. Even though the score isn’t as iconic as Goblin’s score in the Argento masterpiece, the score was an extension of the increasing tension at the opening of the film. And who should finally answer the door to this rather quaint, Instagram-worthy house in the middle of a neighborhood long-condemned, but a Norman Bates-like character. The opening and entire first act setup everything that is to follow.
Georgina Campbell, who plays our central character of Tess, and Bill Skarsgard, who plays Keith, demonstrate excellent on-screen chemistry. Later on in the film when we meet actor AJ Gilbride, played by Justin Long, he complements the fantastic character dynamics and mix. Speaking of Long, there is a clever nod to Jeepers Creepers that you’ll just have to watch the film to find out. Often times, it’s horror films with small casts and intimate settings that deliver the best thrills. Because a writer can spend time on developing central and supporting characters and making sure that every scene has a beginning, middle, and end, and that every scene sets up the scene to follow. Even in a film with figurative and literal layers to the story, each scene should teach us more about the individual characters and further develop plot beats in a manner that does not make the story more convoluted, but slowly reveal the end, one layer at a time.
While I find this film to be overwhelmingly smartly executed, there are a couple of ideas that I find to be problematic, and furthering stigma and misrepresentation instead of using the opportunity to provide a more constructive depiction or argument. Of the two observations I made, I can really only touch on one of them without getting into character or plot spoilers.
When Tess discovers that there is something seriously wrong in the idyllic suburban cottage, she eventually receives a response by the police, after waiting some time. On one hand, I appreciate the setup to and this scene itself because it shows how dangerous is it for cities to reduce the public safety workforce (call it what you will), but where I find the scene problematic is that both police officers dismiss Tess’ concerns even though she is demonstrably in distress. In an era wherein a large number of media portray law enforcement in an unfair, misrepresentative light, this could have been an opportunity to show that the police could very well have been skeptical, but chose to act upon Tess’ claims. This would’ve made for a more constructive, accurate scene versus what we got. This doesn’t mean the police should have found concrete evidence or were instrumental in saving the day, but it would have helped to combat the dangerous ideology that law enforcement is irresponsible.
Deserving of a rewatch, this film is one you don’t want to miss seeing on the big screen! Not only does this film standout compared to the horror films we’ve had this year, but it is one of the best-written films of the year, period. I hope that Cregger’s next feature is as thoughtfully written and directed as this one.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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