Back in 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tapped an up-and-coming genre filmmaker, Edgar Wright, to make a parody trailer for a fake movie to play between their “Grindhouse” double feature. Wright came up with “Don’t,” in which a gravelly voice intones, “If you are thinking of going into this house — don’t! If you are thinking of opening this door — don’t! If you are thinking of checking out the basement — don’t!” It was funny because it was deeply recognizable, and it tapped into the audience's urge to yell at the screen, “don’t go in there!”
This is also essentially the plot of Zach Cregger’s “Barbarian,” about which the less one knows, the better. In fact, consider this permission to stop reading this review right now, and just buy tickets. Do not watch trailers, do not read reviews, proceed directly to the theater for one of the most brilliantly executed, sharply incisive and wildly scary horror films of the year.
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How can one describe “Barbarian” without giving away all the best twists and turns? Well, it’s a triumph of what could be a new subgenre: “Airbnb horror.” It starts on a dark and rainy night, as a young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) attempts to access a lockbox at the Detroit rental home she’s booked for a job interview the next day. A light inside flicks on. Someone else is home.
In a plot twist that demonstrates the perils of farming out property management to anonymous tech companies, it turns out that the house has been double-booked, and Keith (Bill Skarsgard) has already taken up residence. Despite her best instincts — like most modern, independent women, Tess is highly vigilant — she’s out of options, and she decides to crash with him in the same house while things get sorted.
This is the first horror film for Cregger, who is one of the founding members of the sketch comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U'Know, but it’s clear he is a fan, and a student of the genre, and in his masterful control of tone and terror, an exciting new horror filmmaker on the rise. He demonstrates a knack for flipping expectations, so he gives us a horror heroine who is smarter than the average scream queen, and he gives us a mysterious loner (who previously played a famed horror monster in “It”), who just might actually be a nice guy.
The process of establishing and upending expectations happens again and again throughout the film. Cregger slowly builds bone-chilling and suspenseful sequences up to screechingly operatic moments of face-melting horror, and then swiftly cuts to a different chapter, making a hard left into a completely different mode, taking us all on the roller-coaster ride. His facility with comedy also aids in these jarring tone switches, and “Barbarian” is as funny as it is terrifying.
Tess and Keith fumble through the awkwardness of their Airbnb mixup, but the film widens its scope to encompass the house’s other occupants and owners over decades. Cregger traces the suburban home’s journey through time, the middle-class neighborhood succumbing to white flight and later abandonment, finally snapped up as a cheap flip for the short-term rental market. The rumors about what happens in this home are known by locals only, underlining the perils of an eroded community, ravaged by exploitative capitalism, and creating the perfect anonymous environment to lure clueless, tech-savvy millennials to their doom.
Cregger also uses “Barbarian” to explore women as victims, villains and victors within the horror genre, and the ways in which they’re both endangered and empowered by empathy. The deeply caring Tess is a perfect victim, but she’s also street smart, and her soft skills and ability to read others are the most effective powers for fighting the evil she encounters. Campbell’s performance is perfectly calibrated, and Cregger effectively illustrates that it’s Tess’ emotional intelligence that gives her a fighting chance.
Cregger wraps this multilayered contemporary social commentary in a rip-roaring, utterly horrifying flick that’s inspired by classic horror filmmaking and tropes. It’s the throwback appeal coupled with fresh ideas — and plenty of skull-rattling scares — that makes this such an exciting new film and one of the must-see horror movies of the year.