15th Sep2022

Frightfest 2022: ‘Barbarian’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Georgina Campbell, Justin Long, Bill Skarsgard, Matthew Patrick Davis | Written and Directed by Zach Cregger

Georgina Campbell and Justin Long star in this twisted horror from writer-director Zach Cregger, about an Airbnb hiding a sinister secret. Cleverly structured, superbly acted and deeply creepy, it’s a dark-hearted tale that will make you think twice about booking that holiday apartment.

Barbarian‘s opening hook is immediately compelling. Twenty-something Tess (Britain’s own Georgina Campbell, doing a flawless US accent) arrives at her Airbnb in a rundown Detroit neighbourhood to discover there’s been a booking mix-up and a strange man, Keith (Bill Skarsgard), is already staying there. Having no other option – it’s late, local hotels are all booked up due to a medical convention, etc – Tess accepts Keith’s seemingly kind offer of taking the room while he sleeps on the couch, but she’s still cautious enough not to accept the drink he gives her.

However, when she accidentally gets trapped in the basement, Tess discovers that Keith might not be the creepiest thing in the house after all. And just when things get super-scary, Cregger delivers the first of several rug pulls, by abruptly cutting back to Hollywood actor AJ (Justin Long), the owner of the property, who’s heading to Detroit to sell the house after having his career derailed by a #MeToo scandal.

Cregger pulls the same trick again, later on, cutting to a 1980s flashback involving the original owner of the property (Richard Brake), back when the neighbourhood was still thriving. Accordingly, the film’s clever structure allows for maximum tension and suspense, teasing the horrors to come before letting fly with a full-on final act.

Throughout Barbarian, Cregger plays interesting games with audience sympathies. We’re on safe enough ground with Tess, as she’s immediately likeable and easy to root for, but is Keith the nice guy he appears to be? Have we, in fact, misjudged him? As for AJ, he’s clearly a toxic, entitled white guy who deserves everything that’s coming to him, but he might also represent Tess’ only hope of getting out of that basement alive, making him simultaneously villain and potential hero.

On that note, the casting of Justin Long is close to inspired, because he’s such a likeable onscreen presence that it’s deeply unsettling when he turns out to be a wrong’un. Campbell and Skarsgard are equally good, particularly in their early scenes together, which are shot through with a sort of hyper-alert tension as we wait for the warning signals.

Cregger’s direction is assured throughout, expertly delivering tension, thrills and effective jump scares, while pulling off a handful of enormously enjoyable twists. Admittedly, there are a couple of dodgy editing moments, but they’re not enough to take you out of the film, even if they annoy you in the pub discussion afterwards.

The film is particularly commendable for its extremely bleak view of certain sections of humanity, wringing genuine shock and despair from simple little moments. It’s also shot through with jet-black humour (Cregger has a comedy background), with Cregger striking exactly the right tone between dark laughter and creepy horror.

In short, Barbarian – with its carefully chosen title that doesn’t give anything away – is a thoroughly enjoyable horror flick that delights in its twists and turns and delivers handsomely when it comes to thrills, chills and kills. It also has a belter of a talking point scene that it would be churlish to reveal here. Catch it soon, before someone spoils it.

**** 4/5

Barbarian screened as part of this year’s Arrow Video London Frightgest


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