Most people will spend a large portion of “Barbarian,” the surprise Halloween hit currently streaming on HBO Max, desperately trying to figure out what the hell kind of movie it even is. There’s a guy who’s equal parts charming and creepy, so maybe it’s a serial killer film? There’s a spooky house with doors that open and close on their own, so maybe it’s a ghost story? There’s a crazy homeless guy chasing people around outside, so maybe it’s a home invasion movie? There’s a basement with blood marks on the wall, so maybe it’s a creature feature? Wait: Could it actually be all these things? For the first act of the movie, you will have absolutely no idea… and it only gets more confusing from there.
That kind of wishy-washy genre-jumping— sadly all too common nowadays— is usually annoying at best, infuriating at worst; but somehow, in this case, everything comes together in the final act, making “Barbarian” one of the most original, most enjoyable, most surprising horror films in recent memory. Simply put, it just works.
First-time feature director, Zach Cregger (who also wrote the screenplay and appears in the film in a small role) takes the reins with the confidence of someone who has been directing horror films for decades. From the very first frame, he makes it clear that something terrible is about to happen… and then he just ratchets up the tension from there. Every single element of the film—the camera angles, the lighting, the sound design, the score, even the color palette— is precision-crafted to creep you out. Even the most innocuous household item shown on the screen is filmed like it contains a horrible secret yet to be revealed: a cup of tea or a shower curtain or a washing machine. Brrr!
None of it would work, however, without a cast capable of conveying that crucial sense of dread to the audience; and up-and-comer Georgina Campbell (“All My Friends Hate Me”) is definitely up to the task. As Tess, she displays the perfect combination of vulnerability and moxie for the female protagonist of a horror movie. In particular, her early scenes with Keith, played by the preternaturally creepy Bill Skarsgård (“It”), are nerve-wracking in the extreme; not because of what is happening, but— and this is a neat trick— because of what might happen. Add to the mix the always-watchable Justin Long (“Drag Me to Hell”), acting against type as the smarmy AJ, and you’ve got a terrific lineup that makes a great film even better. (On a side note, why is Justin Long not a bigger star? His best-known credit is from 2009, for heaven’s sake. Wake up, Hollywood!)
And it’s not all scares, either: Cregger is savvy enough to exploit the link between horror and comedy; that visceral connection between screaming in terror and laughing in relief. So for every “Don’t go in there!” moment (of which this movie has several), he makes sure to throw in a moment of levity: a scene, a facial expression, and even— in one instance— a single word. Yes, this movie may be scary; but it’s also a lot of fun.
Surprisingly, it also has quite a lot to say. Somehow, in the space of its lean one-hour and 45-minute runtime, it manages to touch on important real-world issues such as capitalism, sexual politics, classism, toxic masculinity, racism, and more, all without getting in the way of the narrative.
Still, “Barbarian” does have a few flaws that prevent it from being a bona fide horror classic. The plot, for example, leaves many major questions unanswered, some of which I will share in spoiler-free Mad Libs form here: Why would anyone (VERB) a (NOUN) in that neighborhood? Who built those (NOUN) under the (NOUN)? And how did (NOUN) survive the (NOUN)? Aside from those issues, there’s also the slight contrivance of the black character who magically shows up, does something heroic, and explains everything— a “Deus Ex Blackina,” if you will. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
There is a lot more to talk about, but I will stop here; because frankly, the less you know about this movie, the more you will enjoy it. Suffice it to say that “Barbarian” is tremendous fun— especially for the Halloween season. Go watch it now, before everyone starts talking about it.
5 crowns: a must-see
4 crowns: excellent
3 crowns: good but not great
2 crowns: just about watchable
1 crown: avoid at all costs