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Barbarian: Check your ‘red flags’ after watching this one

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Sep. 09, 2022 - 10:19 AM

Barbarian: Check your ‘red flags’ after watching this one

“Barbarian” has its fair share of effective jump scares, but the movie’s humor proves to be both unexpected and surprising.


Review by Jonathan W. Hickman

Film Details:

Director: Zach Cregger

Cast: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgârd, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis, Jaymes Butler, and Richard Brake

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Available in wide theatrical release

This banner year in horror continues with “Barbarian,” a nasty collection of scares that might make you check your red flags when you book that random weekend getaway.

One dark and rainy night, Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at a house she rented in Detroit only to discover that it’s already occupied. After knocking, she’s greeted by Keith (Bill Skarsgârd, who played Pennywise in the “It” movies). The handsome young man explains that he booked the place on HomeAway.

The two compare confirmation emails, Tess used Airbnb, and they agree that the rental was double booked. Since no one is available to sort it out, and a convention is in town, hence no vacancies, Tess reluctantly accepts Keith’s offer to crash there until morning. Keith gallantly takes the couch, leaving Tess with the house’s only bedroom. And after some persuading, Tess polishes off a bottle of wine with Keith.

But at some point, in the middle of the night, Tess discovers her bedroom door open and Keith experiencing a loud, fitful nightmare. Something’s not right, but because Tess needs to attend a job interview the following day, she elects to tough it out.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, popular actor AJ (Justin Long) gets a call from a producer. He’s been cut from an upcoming television series. Why? A co-star has accused him of misconduct. Faced with cancelations, even his financial advisor lets him go, AJ decides to visit his rental properties in, you guessed it, Detroit, where he hopes to raise some much-needed cash.

Director Zach Cregger, who also penned the “Barbarian” script, brings together these diverse souls trapping them in a gentrified home in a bombed-out part of Detroit. With shades of “Candyman,” Cregger’s inventive and somewhat familiar story leans more into campy, contained horror than social commentary. However, his screenplay was partially the product of reading a book by security consultant Gavin de Becker.

That de Backer book made Cregger focus on what he calls “red flags” that women heed when interacting with men. Squeezing as many of these red flags into his set-up, Cregger gets creepy mileage out of the initial meeting between Tess and Keith, and later, he pushes the irony as AJ also arrives at the abode with only money on his mind.

Cregger’s film recognizes that safety is far from guaranteed anywhere you go these days. By setting his story in an urban environment that has completely been ignored, Cregger further comments on our immediate perception of anyone who might inhabit the run-down and disabused portions of a decaying American metropolis. In one sequence, the wild story that a character tells the police is dismissed as the product of just another drug addict caught between fixes.

This year has treated audiences to a variety of horror films, many of which skillfully pay homage to the genre. In March, Ti West’s 1970s set, gory and perverse “X” began a good run, and we hit a horror high-watermark with “The Black Phone” in June. The entertaining “Barbarian” helps push the trend forward with a colorful and nasty romp reminiscent of “Don’t Breathe,” but with a hero that viewers can wholeheartedly embrace.

The conceit of contained horror is ideally suited for our Airbnb age. Alex Garland’s “Men,” released in May, gave us a similar situation where a young woman rents a house only to discover that all is not well. Shudder, the streaming platform that dependably delivers horror experiments each month gave viewers the wicked and excellently brief “Glorious” in August. That gloriously goofy movie trapped a troubled man in an interstate rest area bathroom. He tries to escape the clutches of a mysterious and sarcastic entity (voiced perfectly by J.K. Simmons) that converses with him through a hole in a bathroom stall.

With “Barbarian,” Cregger places his story in the present, but one extended flashback sequence is particularly artful. By reaching into America’s past, Cregger gives us a satisfying, if also over-the-top ridiculous, backstory explaining the tragedy unfolding in 2022. And the bright, saturated colors of the flashback make a great contrast with the present-day storyline. The juxtaposition helps boost Cregger’s entire production in an unexpected way.

Performances are uniformly solid, with Campbell giving us a relatable hero. Long, whose history in horror dates back to 2001’s “Jeepers Creepers,” is terrific as a possibly slimy actor who may or may not be responsible for wrongdoing. Long is a performer who is not averse to looking bad on screen, and his AJ easily ranks as one of his most memorable and undesirable creations.

Skarsgârd, who will be seen playing the title character in “The Crow” reboot, exudes boyish discomfort that is both off-putting and strangely inviting. Cregger has said that the inspiration for Keith was Anthony Perkins's portrayal of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho.” Skarsgârd cleverly weaves elements of Perkins/Bates into the gangly and oddly uncomfortable Keith. It’s an unsettling performance that helps Cregger get crazier as his narrative progresses.

“Barbarian” has its fair share of effective jump scares, but the movie’s humor proves to be both unexpected and surprising. Cregger’s background is in comedy, and he subtly works in laughs that break up the tension. The excellently timed comedic aspects help us accept the foolish choices made by his characters.

Another splendid example of the undying success of horror cinema, the macabre “Barbarian” will hit the spot for genre fans while also providing a subtle commentary on transient lifestyles.