This surprising horror flick is a true delight
Expectations can make or break a film. Marketing campaigns are therefore as much a part of the narrative journey of a movie as the film itself. The marketing and promotion of the newest horror film Barbarian (2022) was done so in a simple and direct manner, letting the actual movie deliver some of the biggest twists and turns, thus taking viewers along for a joyous ride of discovery.
Barbarian is best viewed without knowing any of the plot. If you wish to do so, simply skip this paragraph. For those who wish for a bit of set up, it basically finds Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrive at her Airbnb in a dodgy neighborhood of Detroit, only to find that it has also been booked by another guest: Keith (Bill Skarsgård). They decide to share the home while they figure out logistics with the owners, only something mysterious in the basement might get in their way.
The film is directed by Zach Cregger, an actor who’s directed some bit and poorly received films (Miss March (2009) being his directing debut). Barbarian is only his third feature length film, and it’s one that showcases a bold filmmaker’s mind. Cregger, who also writes the wholly original script, decides to throw away how narratives and films are normally structured, and makes Barbarian more unpredictable and surprising as a result, keeping viewers at the edge of their seats. Cregger’s great use of misdirection, key casting choices, and atmosphere helps don the first act with a direction that horror movie veterans will see coming from a mile away. Cregger then takes these horror expectations and smashes them against the wall. Barbarian pivots so brusquely and boldly at some points that I think the entire theater I was in said in unison “wait, what?!” The American director is clearly gleeful at throwing added mysteries and bonkers imagery at audiences, only to switch to a completely different tonal gear. These disparities might work individually, but Cregger also manages to make them all fit in a neat tapestry that delivers a chilling story and poignant message about how we abandon certain communities.
Cregger’s move into horror showcases a mind that is more interested with engraving horrifying images into viewers’ minds than simply delivering jump scares or gasps from an auditorium. Cregger intelligently deduces that to have stakes, one must credibly build out characters, which he does brilliantly in Barbarian along with his cast. Campbell, Skarsgård, and Justin Long (the latter not a spoiler since he’s in promotional material) do a phenomenal job at inhabiting their characters and helping bring an added level of immersion. The use of comedy and cutesy in certain scenes helps add dimension and a lived-in quality to the characters, showing a complex and vivid life outside the confines of this horror film’s runtime. All three actors, especially Skarsgård are forced to ride a certain balance about their characters, to help play with audience expectations about who they truly are. Campbell does a spectacular job as our initial audience surrogate, riding the line of conventional horror character who must do silly decisions with that of a good person trying to do the right thing.
Barbarian is a horror film truly unlike many in recent years. It might not be as intellectually stimulating as something coming from A24, but as far as actual terror delivered it does its job. I have not had to watch a film from between my clasped hands in a while, and Cregger’s newest managed to do just that. Do yourself a favor, if you like horror: don’t watch a trailer, don’t read anything else about this film, simply plop yourself at your local theater and let yourself be surprised.