Like jellybeans, Nyquil, and scented pencil erasers, everybody has a favorite flavor of horror. Mine are coconut, cherry, grape, and “Oh God. Oh no. It is absolutely going to come out of that door in the corner. You idiot. Run, you absolute fool.” That last one, of course, being my preferred Nyquil.
Ever since Jordan Peele got out, the spooky flavor du jour is “socially aware slow-burn.” That’s my second favorite Nyquil. It’s also not the standard all horror movies should be held to. “Barbarian” is not “Get Out” any more than “The Untouchables” was “The Godfather” or “The Batman” is “Seven.” Doing a goofier, more simplistic riff on highfalutin things can still be a real good time, and “Barbarian” is a real good time. Not that anyone in the movie has a real good time, just to be clear. Writer/director Zach Cregger’s debut feature-length film is an hour and 37 minutes of tension above jump scares, of flourishes without sacrificing style for substance, of gross-icky-very-bad things that play out gross, icky, and very bad. Unfortunately, it’s also an hour and 42 minutes long…
Never trust any reviewer that avoids penning a detailed synopsis under the guise “the less you know going in, the better.” Still, when it comes to “Barbarian,” the less you know going in, the better! This isn’t because the twists are brain-busting shockers so much as because doing so puts you in the same state of mind as Tess (Georgina Campbell), who is about to embark on a zero-star travel experience. She winds up double-booked in an Airbnb with the clown from “It” (Bill Skarsgård). Presumably furious she got the slightly-less-abbed Skarsgård, Tess reluctantly agrees to spend the night there anyway. This is mostly because she’s found herself in a part of Detroit locals probably call “Nuh Uh.”
Creggers depiction of Detroit is…unkind. Unlike the way in which both the original and remake of “Candyman” thoughtfully wove issues about inner city Chicago into their narratives, “Barbarian” rolls with “Detroit is bad now.” It does politely mention Motown-adjacent stuff and lightly poke at something about artists resurrecting the place. But mostly it’s just ugly, post-suburban nightmare fuel. Anyway, Tess checks out the basement of her rental house in the dilapidated neighborhood and finds the aforementioned gross, icky, very bad stuff.
The last 5 minutes play out like Creggers got very sick of having to rewrite the ending and just said “Here, you do it” to a rando dude on a Nyquil bender. Somehow, shockingly, this doesn’t ruin everything? It’s more like watching a gymnast snap an ankle trying to stick a dismount after a glorious routine. It’s hard to watch but you feel an odd sympathy more than anger. Because what came before is a fabulously grody, gnarly thriller that falls back on the old-standby of horror genre morals:
“That ain’t the real monster. That is the real monster.” – Mary Shelley
“Barbarian” has a singularly fantastic score by Anna Drubich, which sounds like an eldritch tentacle jamming on a synthesizer. It has cinematography by Zach Kuperstein that is almost perpetually poorly lit but somehow always still clearly decipherable. It uses Justin Long arguably the best since he was a smarmy Macintosh computer. It is a very specific kind of slimy horror and an absolute treasure for those who enjoy being coated in that film.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Kofi Outlaw at ComicBook.com says “Cregger constructed his descent into the demented and macabre with a horror connoisseur’s confidence in measuring how each moment will play to the crowd.”
Montilee Stormer at Movie Reelist says “Ruin porn fans will delight in the movie’s setting, Brightmoor Neighborhood, notorious for its lack of residents and overabundance of burned-out shells and naked decay. It’s interesting to note, however, that while Barbarian is set in Detroit and some scenes were filmed in the city, the neighborhood is a fabrication in Bulgaria.”
Rachel Leishman from The Mary Sue says “So often, that fear of existing alone is rooted in the horror stories of what happened to a woman by herself, and ‘Barbarian’highlights that in multiple ways that I hope leaves audiences with a sense of pause as they leave the theater.