One vital statistic for cinema that’s functioning well in 2022 is horror at the box office, not just the ongoing Scream and Halloween franchises, but new IP like The Black Phone, Smile or Barbarian, an old-school ghost train ride that delivers the big scares but also really enjoys messing with the audience’s judgemental head. There should always be spoilers for a twisty-turny narrative like this, but I’ll aim to tease and warn the curious rather than reveal all the nefarious secrets hidden within and beneath an unassuming house in a very ramshackle suburban neighbourhood of Detroit.
A relatable situation within a situation grabs the attention; Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Air-B-and-B rental to prepare for her job interview the next day. She finds the house already occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgård), who also claims that he has a valid rental agreement. Keith seems a little too eager to please, and when he professes to have seen a film by one of Tess’s friends, a female directed jazz documentary, we start to wonder about Keith’s motives. Whatever Keith is hiding, it turns out that Tess’s wariness is justified.
New on Disney+, Barbarian does require content warnings; this isn’t a supernatural story but a dark thriller, and writer/director Zach Creggar walks a fine line as the story veers towards unpleasant domestic abuse issues. But somehow Barbarian is more than the sum of its memorable parts; the mid-film diversion into the life of misogynist actor AJ (Justin Long) has a different, satirical tone but establishes him as a slippery character who we’re quick to judge due to a rape allegation against him. There is gore, but not the relentless torture and assault that might have been expected; it’s worth noting that the title only has the loosest thematic connection to the narrative.
Barbarian is a movie for young people, who will find the awkward situations easy to relate to, and with a consistent, dank universe to explore. Barbarian offers an unexpected experience in the dark, a where-are-we-going? narrative that keep audiences on edge, and plays like an updated Psycho in the terse, brooding early stages with Campbell and Skarsgård selling their odd couple well. The solution isn’t wildly imaginative, but getting there is all the fun, and if you can handle the adult themes, Barbarian should knock the stuffing out of you.