When two strangers find that they have accidentally booked into the same Airbnb on the same night, a horrifying discovery is made. And not just a concerning lack of toilet paper in the bathroom. Is the outwardly genial but odd-in-ways-you-can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on Keith (Bill Skarsgård) all that he seems to be? Searching for said loo roll in the basement, Tess (Georgina Campbell) stumbles across – no, wait, we’ve said too much already.
From unassuming beginnings, writer and director Zach Cregger spins the year’s most shocking horror film. There are comparisons to be made to the likes of Martyrs, Malignant and even Psycho, should one care to look for them, but his Barbarian is a beast of its own, packing a series of vicious surprises up its (tightly buttoned, well-tailored) sleeve.
The questions quickly rack up. Do Keith’s smiles and apparent good manners hide something more sinister? Is Tess the innocent heroine she at first appears to be? What is Justin Long doing here, after all these years of Justin Long not being in much at all? Where does Richard Brake fit in, and will he be playing the kind of monster he usually does, in this sort of thing? And what is this sort of thing, anyway? All of which will be answered, and we’ll let the film do its own talking.
Cregger layers suspense on suspense, from the initial anxieties of Tess and Bill’s predicament – pregnant with tension and unspoken fears – to the film’s more traditional genre flourishes. In its menfolk, the film taps into the inherent perils of womanhood, both subtle and more overt. The themes may be timely, but they’re also timeless (especially if you happen to be a woman, navigating the creeps of today), and in service of something startlingly unpredictable and original.
At the same time, the film impresses with a strain of cleverly employed gallows humour, puncturing the tension and scares with much-needed levity. Perhaps Long threatens to push the whole thing into all-out comedy, but it’s a deliciously slimy performance from one of horror’s more underappreciated figures. Campbell will likely have audiences screaming at their screens where some of her character’s decision-making is concerned, but the actress is a grounding presence, and a sympathetic straight woman to the Skarsgård-isms and wacky Justin Long behaviour.
To say more would be to spoil one of the year’s wildest releases. What we can say: Barbarian is a rollicking genre ride into the unexpected, the unsettling and the unforgettable.