For awhile, the new horror film Barbarian is a shivery fun ride that understands what scares us, primarily things that go bump in the night (or, specifically, the dark). That simple, primal fear has been exploited in horror films since forever, but in a modern horror movie landscape that prizes “elevated,” metal-level social horror films, a standard thriller content to merely exploit basic human fears seems almost retrograde.
As with many a horror film, a healthy suspension of disbelief is required. Picture opens with fledgling documentary assistant Tess (appealing Georgina Campbell) arriving in Detroit (during a driving rainstorm, naturally) for a job interview only to discover that her Airbnb, a tiny house in the city’s worn down outskirts, has been double-booked.
With a “convention in town” and every hotel booked, she cautiously agrees to share the venue with equally befuddled co-renter Keith (Bill Skarsgard), a sort of indie rock musician who seems affable, harmless and accommodating. In the first and strongest section, the picture charts Tess’ unease alone with a strange man, every move and gesture suspect. Is she the next target of a Ted Bundy-like charmer waiting to murder her in her sleep? Why is the bedroom door lock faulty? What are those middle-of-the-nights noises keeping her awake? All of this is clever in addressing the notion that young women today fear being victims in a post #MeToo era, a theme that will overtly surface in the film’s second (and lesser) half.
Things get seriously creepy after Tess begins exploring the house’s elaborate subterranean tunnels, and credit due to writer/director Zach Cregger for the superbly constructed suspense around each darkened turn and queasy discovery. So far, so good.
Yet this effective setup turns out to be misdirection and about a third of the way into the picture Cregger heads in a decidedly more ambitious—and significantly less scary—direction. Where does he go? Justin Long shows up as a repellant Hollywood producer riding high until he’s slapped with rape charges from an actress girlfriend, and suddenly sunny L.A. has replaced dank Detroit, all the tension sapped from the film. During this long stretch, we lose the Tess plot thread and while the intention is to keep us on edge about what’s happening across the country, it effectively dissipates the suspense.
Barbarian is the kind of film where the less said the better, but Long’s character turns out to own the Detroit Airbnb, and he returns to the Midwest for refuge. About the same time, the narrative shifts again, decades into the past to reveal additional horrors in the form of a predator targeting vulnerable single women. This development will gruesomely inform the present, and the way Cregger brings his triptych plot together feels clever as well as labored.
Cregger has crafted a shocker, all right, but in the final analysis it serves to reinforce that the most effective shocks are visceral, primal and prey upon our basic fears, and when they become cultural satires of comeuppance they are far less scary.