Although firmly planting itself in the horror genre, Barbarian is unlike most conventional, fear inducing pictures in that it constantly tries to change its narrative at every turn to keep its audience guessing. Writer and Director Zach Cregger is less interested in jump scares and surprises (although there are a few), here the currency is dread and an audience’s ability to trust blindly. While it has a solid cast and some excellent pacing, Barbarian, due to its always shifting story, here broken up into three distinct chapters feels disjointed, constantly seeking the feeling of its first act throughout a film that turns from one type of horror film into another, never quite connecting the dots as well as it thinks it does.
Telling the story of Tess (Georgina Campbell), a young woman who has rented an Airbnb in a dilapidated neighbourhood in Detroit only to find it has been double booked by a mysterious man called Keith (Bill Skarsgard). Deciding to stay the night regardless, Tess discovers some hidden features to the house and begins to question what kind of person she has agreed to stay with and what the hell happened in this house in the past.
While that might seem like a conventional synopsis for a standard horror, part of the fun of Barbarian is deciphering the mysteries of this story and going in utterly blind. While Tess is an interesting character, her role as a substitute for the audience here is never downplayed. Her apprehension when she arrives, and the feeling of building unease is yours and there is very little release from the moment she lands on the front porch to when the true horror arrives. It’s hard to overstate how much of the first act is a masterclass in building anxiety. Cregger, along with a disturbingly excellent performance by Skarsgard makes this Airbnb comfortable but unavoidably off.
Cregger’s script is impressively minimalist yet still manages to use body horror to tell a story of toxic masculinity and the difficulty of trusting men in the modern age as Tess tries to decipher Keith’s intentions while the walls of the house close in around her. It’s when the story leaves the confines of the building, and the story becomes more obvious in its plotting and its characterisation that Barbarian loses its charm. While the second act is interesting to begin with, it feels forced in its symbolism and it leads to a finale that is painfully muted. Any tension built by a stellar opening is squandered by its surprise narrative right turn.
There is nothing like it in cinemas at the moment and it proves an entertaining watch, but Cregger’s film squanders its enchanting opening in favour of a story that ends in oddly expected ways, a mixture of body horror, silly ‘twists’ and an ending that instead of scaring, feels utterly banal with all the terror feeling so long ago and so far away. However, it does signal Cregger as a director to watch in the future, with the first 40 minutes being some of the best horror of the year.