I don’t know if it’s the case for everyone, but for me, it was easy to go into Barbarian cynical. Thanks to the success of A24 and Jordan Peele, it kinda looked like a movie that was just copying the modern formula for success: get a comedy guy to write and direct a low-budget horror movie set in one location where the real villain is contemporary social issues. In fact, star Georgina Campbell went as far as to say Jordan Peele was “part of the essence of the movie.” But then I saw it and realized words like “formulaic” and “derivative” don’t really apply to Barbarian and so what if it’s trendy? It’s part of a good trend! All that really means is that it was perhaps slightly more likely to be successful. I see this as an absolute win.
Late one rainy night in Detroit, Tess (Georgina Campbell) pulls up to her Airbnb only to find the key missing from the lockbox. She calls the number from the listing but there’s no answer. As she waits on the porch unsure of what to do, she notices someone is inside the house. The confused resident (Bill Skarsgård) opens the door and explains that he also had rented the home on a different app. He invites her in out of the rain and introduces himself as Keith. They both try to figure out another place to stay no avail: the hotels are all booked up due to a convention in town. With no better option, they agree to share the house for the night and complain in the morning, hoping they can both get a refund.
The house only has one bedroom, and Keith had already been in the bed. Nonetheless, he offers the room to her, which she accepts – but she’d fresh sheets. Unable to find another set, they load the linens into the washer and awkwardly wait. Keith makes Tess tea, but she refuses. Keith opens up a bottle of wine, emphasizing that he’s doing it in front of her so she knows he didn’t drug it, but she refuses. Keith starts asking Tess questions about her life, she cagily answers that she’s in town because she’s got a job interview with a documentarian the next day. He says not only has he seen her interviewer’s most recent film, he actually would be a great subject for her next project. Finally Tess starts to let her guard down… but you have to wonder, is it all an act?
One of the things Barbarian does very well is convey perspective. It’s not subtle about it, writer-director Zach Cregger has been upfront one of his inspirations was the book The Gift of Fear, which encourages women to trust their intuition when confronted by obviously dangerous men. But it’s a smart and effective spin on the “don’t go in there” style of many horror movies. Tess is confronted by so many red flags and must carefully wade through this situation. It’s tense and scary and painfully obvious that if the roles were reversed – if we followed Bill Skarsgård showing up to an Airbnb that Georgina Campbell was already in – it would instead just be awkward or even funny.
This is Zach Cregger’s first horror movie, he’s famously the member of the Whitest Kids U’ Know comedy group who played the historically accurate Abraham Lincoln. It sounds like he and Trevor Moore typically shared directorial duties on their show, and they both co-directed and starred in Miss March, their only other theatrically-released feature film. I will forever be bummed out that WKUK were having a bit of a revival moment on Twitch and YouTube during the pandemic and seemingly poised to make a genuine comeback when Moore died last year. But if there’s a silver lining to WKUK permanently disbanding, it’s that there’s nothing standing in the way of Cregger perusing his newfound success fully. While ultimately I did have some plot logic problems with Barbarian, it’s inventively written, shot well, and edited masterfully (kudos to Joe Murphy). Definitely go catch this one with an audience while it’s still on the big screen!