A young woman in Detroit for a job interview turns up at the Airbnb she booked online only to find that there’s there’s a man already in there. A double booking. It’s dark, it’s late and it’s raining and there’s a convention in town, so finding another place to stay is going to be a stretch.
After several minutes of her wringing her hands and him shifting his weight nervously from one leg to another, he does the gallant thing – no, he doesn’t vacate and leave it to her, but he does offer her the bed. He’ll sleep on the sofa, he says. The bedroom door has a lock on it and he’s going out of his way to reassure her that he’s not rohypnol’d the tea he’s made for her. He seems as unsettled by the situation as she does.
It’s the opener to a horror movie, but in Barbarian debut feature writer/director Zach Cregger doesn’t give us quite the one we might be expecting, sending us off in one obvious direction (the guy is going to be trouble) only to blindside us with a series of excellent feints.
Cregger doesn’t only play with plot expectations but also with the baggage his stars bring to the party. Georgina Campbell, so memorably in deep trouble at the hands of a mad male in 2021’s Wildcat (its low IMDb rating is mental), plays double-booked Tess. Bill Skarsgård, Pennywise the murderous clown in the It remakes, plays the gallant (or is he?) Keith. I mean, Keith!
Later, Cregger introduces Justin Long as AJ, a Hollywood Somebody in deep #MeToo-style trouble, who turns out to be the house’s owner and who turns up to spruce it up and sell it off. Unaware that there is unfinished horror business still to sort out. Nice, laddish, dependable Justin Long, who was hideously disfigured for sport in Tusk, and became a vampire’s plaything in House of Darkness.
And, later still, crag-faced Richard Brake, a tall, reliably gaunt and menacing presence in so many films and TV shows turns up for what looks like being storyline number three, and Cregger catches us out again.
Without giving away too much of the plot, which relies on confounding audience expectations to a large extent, this is a horror film for people who get nervous when the hero/heroine finds a door that leads down to the dark basement and then starts going down those stairs. Cregger gives us stairs and basements, then hidden passages leading off that basement, then stairs leading down from there, into tunnels where strange anaemic things lurk in the dark.
It’s incredibly effective, thanks to committed performances by all concerned, not least Campbell, who is particularly good at acting scared, and smart direction by Cregger, whose spooky camera angles make things creepier than they might otherwise be, and who’s got an economical style of shooting which means the drama is always on the move.
There are some madly improbable/implausible twists in the plot, designed to amuse horror aficionados, I suspect. And as well as playing with horror expectations, Cregger also throws in genuinely inspired moments of humour – like when AJ discovers there’s a hidden passage leading off from his dark cellar and immediately grabs a tape measure so he can work out how much this extra square footage is going to add to the value of his property. He really has bigger problems to worry about but doesn’t know it yet.
There’s a bit of John Carpenter in there somewhere, in the 1980s-style synths Anna Drubich’s moody score reverts to at key moments, and in the way Cregger builds tension from action and then stillness and silence, as Carpenter did in films like The Thing.
And Barbarian gets its name from the fact that it’s Airbnb with an extra r and a couple of a’s. There are worse places to spend the night.
Barbarian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023