by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
Barbarian, released in late 2022, sees Zach Cregger in the director’s chair. It stars Georgina Campbell as protagonist Tess, Bill Skarsgård as Keith and Justin Long in the role of disgraced celebrity AJ Gilbride. In this claustrophobic horror, Tess arrives at an Airbnb in an unsavoury part of town, only to find it’s been double-booked by accident. She’s reluctant to spend the night with the mysterious Keith, but soon realises there are far darker things lurking in this property than just the motives of opportunistic men.
Visually, Barbarian is a stunning movie. Parallels across time are set up nicely, a particular flashback scene is deliciously Rockwellian in colour and design, and already tight spaces feel terribly claustrophobic. This a movie that would benefit from the big screen, and it owes more than a little to the much-loved, cult horror classics of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The humour is also woven throughout with the finesse and grace of Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in Phantom Thread. There’s not a lot of light-hearted moments in Barbarian – and there shouldn’t be, too many filmmakers add enough comedy to tip the balance from humour to confused mish-mash – but where it’s used, it’s executed in a militaristic manner. There’s a chuckle when the atmosphere needs one, before we descend back into the depths of unsettling horror. The fusion of genres in Barbarian has been set up by someone who knows what they’re doing.
The biggest problem with Barbarian, though, is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be, plot-wise. It was both written and directed by Zach Cregger and, for his first solo debut, it’s remarkably sound. But by Cregger’s own admission, he found himself writing a predictable plot, and instead introduced a twist to ‘flip the scene on its head’.
And that’s where the film begins to fall down. What begins as an unsettling horror threatening to fall into a tired narrative (whilst relevant) instead gets bogged down in chasing the profane. The reason why certain things are the way they are is disturbing – downright repulsive, even. But the ‘monster’ of Barbarian isn’t especially original, past the initial shock factor.
The more we find out about this Airbnb property, the less chilling the mysteries are. The more we see what stalks Tess, the less scary it really is. It becomes more human, comical even, in some scenes. Barbarian doesn’t double down on the body horror potential of The Hills Have Eyes, but neither does it back up the genuine fear factor of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, or recent The Menu – which kept me constantly in the dark of the next course.
Barbarian is by no means a bad movie. Far from it. There’s a lot to love about Cregger’s debut. The characters are well-rounded, and red herrings are pulled off with incredible precision. The three-act structure to the movie provides more depth than your standard horror flick and, overall, I was entertained for the two-hour runtime. But beyond that, it didn’t bring anything ambitious or original to the table, and wandered off into worn-out cliché. Cregger’s solo debut relies too much on invoking the retch response in its audience, and not enough on an audacious narrative.