First cautionary tale about Airbnb!
Gripping from it's first shot, Barbarian reveals itself to be one of the better horror films this year. Part of the pleasure here, is not knowing where this ride is taking you.
Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb late at night in pouring rain to discover that there is no key and the owner is not available on phone. Things take a creepier turn when she discovers that it is actually, currently occupied by another tenant, Keith (Bill Skarsgård).
It is said that the writer director Zach Cregger wrote the screenplay based on a book he read about red flags that women must look out for while dealing with a new guy or situation. He started writing a script where the girl ignores all of them. All this comes into play as Tess is left with a choice to stand out in the rain, sit in her car in a shady neighborhood (this is the outskirts of Detroit), or go inside with Keith while she figures things out.
Tess is not a dumb character, though. Every step of the way, she seems aware of all the things that could go wrong. She ignores the tea that Keith has prepared for her, refuses to have wine with him and even when they eventually find common ground and they become friendly, she still seems cautious. The casting here is clever as Keith is played by none other than Pennywise from 'IT'. We as the audience do not know where the film is going and are expecting the worse.
There is a let out of some tension when we suddenly cut to the morning. This could be detrimental to all the tension built previously but Cregger knows where he's going. After successfully giving the interview that she was in town for, Tess comes back to the house and ends up discovering a secret room - with a dirty bed and a camera. As if this is not creepy enough, there is a handprint in blood on the wall.
Understandably disturbed, her decision to immediately leave is stopped by Keith's arrival who asks her to wait while he himself goes in and checks what she has described. This leads to another horrifying discovery of a deeper tunnel beneath the house. I would not like to spoil things, but things sure as hell aren't looking sunny.
Up to this point, Barbarian held me in its grip. It seems like a genuinely creepy idea that slowly, effectively builds dread. Skarsgård is good at poker faced decent guy and this further makes everything unpredictable and Campbell gives a nuanced performance as Tess. And together they play off each other very well.
Cregger knows his horror films and he has watched them well. With our main character presumably dead, the switch to another character is straight out of Hitchcock's 'Psycho'. It is an intentionally jarring move that divides the character into two distinct parts.
What this film fails to take into account, however, that in horror, it is the likeable characters that we root for and fear. Right off the bat we're informed that, Justin Long's AJ, an upcoming actor, has been fired from his job because he has been "sexually aggressive" towards another actor. Though nothing has been proven yet, this is not only someone you don't want to root for but as things become clearer about his complicity, someone you cannot wait for to reach the scary house to get their comeuppance.
Through efficiently staged small scenes AJ's life crumbles around him and he has to liquidate his assets to survive. The house from the first section of the film is one of his properties. He reaches there and discovers stuff left by the previous two owners.
Barbarian meshes the two strands smoothly and throughout it remains very well shot and staged. But it certainly loses some of its edge and tension when it goes back to the past and takes us out of its previous storyline. It's second half is more contrived and strained. It is almost a case of thinking of a great idea struggling to find a satisfactory conclusion. Almost - but fortunately, not completely.
As noticed above, it is an very well done film. Along with performances, the cinematography by Zach Kuperstein (The Vigil ) is also top-notch but, for me, the tension and dread that it is able to muster with minimalistic effects in the first half outweigh what follows.
I don't know if Jordan Peele is thanked in the end credits for being an inspiration or he was actually involved with the film, but it causes one to look closely for any social message that this could be masking.
The only question that I arrive at is that the film seems to be asking is "Who's the real barbarian?" Simplistic that might be, but this is a film worth checking out.