Barbarian (2022) is perfect for me: scary, funny, and weird as hell, which is also how I like to describe myself. I was told by a friend to go into this movie blind because, like with 2021’s Malignant, I wouldn’t be able to prepare for what I was about to witness. With that being said, this review does contain mild spoilers about Barbarian‘s characters, but I save most of the juicy bits for your viewing pleasure.
And Barbarian did, in fact, pleasure me. In the best ways. Sometimes you find a film that fits all your categories of what makes a film – not to quote Harry Styles describing Don’t Worry Darling at the Venice Film Festival – but Barbarian fits them all for me. I get what Harry meant (even though I think he did not). This movie makes me want to write more horror. It also makes me terrified of Airbnbs and breastfeeding. It was just good plain ol’ horror. Though I also don’t want to call it plain; Barbarian it’s far from that. Truthfully, I’m writing this review in the hope that that writer-director Zach Cregger will contact me directly to collaborate on a project. (If you know Zach, reach out to me immediately.)
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a horror movie with an audience this invested. Probably not since Get Out have I heard an audience member react to the moments the writer-director absolutely wanted audible reactions to – it feels like a collaboration. Barbarian also deviates from the horror formula we’re used to, so it was nice to be part of an audience willing to go on such a wild, bizarre ride. Barbarian takes its sweet time building to these moments, gives you a quick peek – and then snatches them away, making you wait a little longer for the full reveal. It’s so good at teasing you by subverting your expectations. And there’s nothing better than a good tease.
But in order to do it successfully, you’ve got to build tension with care. In Barbarian‘s case, the audience is patient because the movie absolutely knows where it’s going even if we don’t. In fact, Malignant deserved this kind of audience – there was barely anyone in the theater when my friend and I saw it, and it deserved better. (Shout-out to my bro Gabriel.) Interestingly enough, both Malignant and Barbarian deal with motherhood and family and how either can traumatize you, turning you into something horrific. The two films feature very odd depictions of similar themes and I just think that’s so damn cool. It makes me excited for more original horror stories on the screen.
Because in 2022, with most new horror movies either a rehash of older films or knee-deep in boring, has-been tropes and a copycat formula, it feels good to get a bonkers monster movie made with passion. And Barbarian is gorgeous from the very first frame: an establishing shot of the house, with rain grumbling in the background, in which we meet our heroine, Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell), just arrived at her Detroit Airbnb for a job interview. Tess discovers that the key in the lockbox is missing and she can’t get into the house. Then, while calling the property manager, she notices someone inside the house. Keith (Bill Skarsgård, the hottest man alive) opens the door and tells her that he already rented this Airbnb for the night. Tess is faced with a dilemma: does she stay or go?
Of course she stays – there happens to be a convention in town and every hotel room is booked. Keith takes the couch and Tess takes the bedroom. But the arrangement isn’t without awkward conversations and sexual tension (which I completely understand because Bill is a Skarsgård). And everything seems to go well. Keith is lovely; Tess’ job interview turns out great. Then Tess needs toilet paper, and it’s in…the basement. This is when the audience comes alive, yelling at the screen about how Tess needed to stay the hell upstairs. And she should have – because that’s when things get nuts. Barbarian‘s first act is probably the best Act One I’ve seen in a long time. Campbell and Skarsgård’s chemistry is undeniable even with a few horror tropes sprinkled in.
Similarly, Barbarian‘s cinematography and camerawork are phenomenal. I was reminded of Leigh Whannell‘s camerawork in The Invisible Man, with its frames of emptiness and eerie wide spaces that elicit instant psychological creepiness. The camera feels like a character within itself. It begs the question: What does it know that we don’t? And that’s absolutely necessary for horror to be effective. The setting was just as well done: a perfectly cute, idyllic little home, nestled between abandoned houses, with a dungeon basement so deep it descends into hell. It’s a setting similar to the film Don’t Breathe, which Barbarian‘s aesthetic evokes. I love a basement horror movie. Basements are horrifying. Speaking of horrifying, the kills in this movie were pretty brutal and grotesque; TI West‘s X was the last horror movie I saw that made me genuinely excited about how well done the SFX makeup and practical effects of the killings were. I love horror movies that aren’t afraid to get goofy and nasty with effects when necessary.
Once AJ (Justin Long) is introduced at the beginning of the second act – especially after how explosive and chaotic Act One’s ending is, something I won’t spoil for you – you wonder where Barbarian is leading you. AJ was basically kicked out of Hollywood after sexual misconduct allegations. That single detail establishes him spectacularly; it’s refreshing to see a character so grounded in being narcissistic and terrible. The path that leads AJ – who owns the Airbnb – to the dungeon is now one of my favorite examples of an unlikable character doing an unlikeable thing. After discovering the dungeon, AJ decides to Google whether he can sublet it. Hilarious. I love seeing Long in comedic horror (minus Je*pers Cre*pers; don’t support that one), and he’s perfectly cast as AJ. I didn’t expect this comedic relief, but it fit.
Having said all these wonderful things, one of my gripes with Barbarian is Tess’ character development. The movie wants to set up Tess and AJ as a good person/bad person dynamic, but AJ gets so much more development and depth that there isn’t enough room for Tess. Barbarian also offers social commentary on landlords purchasing homes; Airbnb gentification; discrimination against homeless people; inept police; and abandoned lower-income neighborhoods specifically in Detroit. While these are all incredibly important topics, Barbarian only scratches their surface; it seems to want to dive into each one, but doesn’t know how to do so.
Nonetheless, what Cregger does with Barbarian is refreshingly engaging, especially to a horror fanatic like myself. You, like me, will need to gush about it as soon as possible. But I’m keeping the spoilers to a minimum so you can enjoy the film the way I did. (Except maybe for this one potential spoiler: pay special attention to the Ronettes’ song “Be My Baby” playing over the end credits.) Barbarian‘s insanity needs to be experienced with an audience: you need to look around and question if what you just saw actually just happened. And it did.