Some horror pictures treat the audience as if they’ve never seen a scary movie before. Others know that we’re familiar with all the clichés, taking a meta approach. Barbarian is something different. Maybe not revolutionary, but it plays with expectations in wickedly fun ways that few other modern films have. In 1960, nobody could’ve predicted Marion Crane’s fate in Psycho. Barbarian gives us two Marion Cranes for the price of one. It starts in one direction only to go in another before shifting gears again. While the final destination is unexpected, it doesn’t feel inconsistent with where this story begins.
Georgina Campbell, who you might recognize from the Hang the DJ episode of Black Mirror, gives a star-making performance as Tess. On one of those customary dark and stormy nights, Tess arrives at a house that she rented. To her surprise, the house is already occupied by another tenant, Bill Skarsgård’s Keith. Assuming there was a mix-up, Tess tries to book a hotel room, but no such luck. Keith suggests that Tess stay the night, which seems like her best option given the weather. Of course, things aren’t as they appear, but it’s still not what you think.
In every haunted house movie, somebody in the theater is inclined to shout out, “Don’t go in there!” While there are times when we wish Tess would turn the other way, the film doesn’t treat her like a fool. Like any sensible person would under these uncomfortable circumstances, Tess locks her door, takes a photo of Keith’s ID, and second-guesses drinking the tea he prepares. Skarsgård’s casting is another reason Barbarian works so well. We all know Skarsgård for playing Pennywise. Throughout Barbarian, we half-expect him to pop out of the shadows and say, “Hiya, Georgie!” However, Skarsgård can also be a charmer, which he brings to his role here.
Although there seems to be something off about the awkward Keith, he possesses a puppy-eyed charisma that wins Tess over. The two slowly develop a possible romance that the audience isn’t sure how to feel about. Their chemistry is natural, but this whole setup makes it difficult to trust Keith. This film’s first act is reminiscent of Fresh starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan. Where that movie started as a rom-com and became a horror movie, Barbarian almost plays in reverse. However, it isn’t long until viewers get the thriller they paid for, even if it’s not the one they were anticipating.
Barbarian also draws parallels to 10 Cloverfield Lane and the works of Jordan Peele. Not because the plots and tone are similar, but because Barbarian is another breath of fresh air. Director Zach Cregger has primarily worked in comedies. Although Barbarian is darkly comedic, it avoids becoming a satire of itself like the Scream sequels. It’s self-aware without flaunting its self-awareness. The film’s commentary is also clever without being on the nose. In addition to exploring forgotten communities, a subplot involving Justin Long touches upon #MeToo and cancel culture in an inspired fashion. It’s surprising just how well-balanced and structured Barbarian is, influencing the audience to check it out a second time. Tess probably should’ve turned away in the opening scene, but you shouldn’t.