Flick finds pretty Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) renting an Airbnb in a desolate neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan for a job interview. She gets there only to find out it’s been double booked, and she has to share it with a stranger named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). That isn’t the worst of her worries, as is what she finds in the cellar upon getting accidentally locked in there. Meanwhile the house’s owner, an actor named AJ (Justin Long), who has been recently disgraced in a scandal, is on his way there and headed straight into the nightmare Tess and Keith are already embroiled in.
Barbarian is written and directed by Zach Cregger and is entertaining, but a bit of a mixed bag. The first act starts out uncomfortable with Tess and Keith meeting under equally uncomfortable circumstances. As the story unfolds and Tess makes a chilling discovery in the basement, the film starts to get creepy and has a few legit scares, before jarringly switching narrative to house owner AJ. This kills any atmosphere or dread and all the tension and the momentum the flick was starting to build, as we leave Detroit to get to know AJ. These sequences have a bit more of a nervous humor to them as the neurotic AJ learns his career died overnight due to a scandal involving an actress. AJ then goes to the house, which he now needs to sell, and eventually finds his way down to the basement and joins the horror. The tension, scares and atmosphere start to build once more, but again is stopped dead as Cregger now chooses to go back to the 80s for a flashback that does fill in some story elements, but also gives us way too much time to breathe after starting to get scared again. We then have the final confrontation, which is fairly strong, but also ends a bit abruptly. Cregger has a good visual eye and can build fear and tension, he just doesn’t know how to maintain it when introducing new characters or offering exposition. Sometimes he also needs to let the camera linger a few more moments, so we can fully get the full impact of what’s happened. There are also two instances which really stretch credibility. One has Keith being totally dismissive when Tess tells him what she’s found…and it sounds disturbing…and police totally dismissing Tess when she goes for help. Any good cop knows the difference between strung-out and terrified. There was still plenty to like here. The film has some decent violence and gore, make-up FX are solid, the villain is effective and the locations beneath the house and around desolate Detroit are creepy. It’s Cregger’s inexperience with making his first feature horror film that takes this down a few notches, when it should have been a blast. It’s technically sound, with the cinematography by Zach Kuperstein very effective, as is the score by Anna Drubich.
The cast are good here with Georgina Campbell being a strong and likable heroine as Tess. It’s actually disappointing that she plays second banana to Justin Long in the last act, when her character is the one we are really rooting for over jerk actor AJ. Bill Skarsgård is solid as Keith. At first we are unsure of him, as we should be in the film’s set-up, but come to like what seems to be a legitimately nice guy. Underrated Justin Long is also good as the panicked, neurotic jerk of an actor AJ, who is far less level-headed than Tess when the horror hits the fan. Rounding out is a role played by Rob Zombie regular Richard Brake, the type of role he plays very well and Matthew Patrick Davis as…well, you’ll find out.
Overall, this was entertaining but at the same time disappointing. There was some real good tension in spots, some legit scares and some very effective violence all stemming from its uncomfortable start. Horror thriller faulters when Cregger loses his grip on his audience, by switching focus more than once when we are just getting scared. It was like bringing a rollercoaster to the top of a climb and then telling everyone the ride is over before the drop. Film also evokes other horrors past and present, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is some good gore, a fairly creepy villain and the cast all perform well amidst some spooky locations. Uneven but still entertained.
Rated 3 (out of 4) maggots, because there were maggots in the theater auditorium, I saw it in!