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Barbarian’s layered secrets make it horror-movie catnip

The fall’s first buzzy horror film offers more than just twists

Tess climbs out of the darkness, terrified in the new movie Barbarian. Photo: 20th Century Studios

The horror movie Barbarian is best approached by an audience that knows as little as possible about it. The film’s trailer encourages this to a degree that may turn some viewers off: It divulges little beyond the film’s initial setup. Even in our spoiler-phobic times, keeping secrets makes sense for a horror movie — it’s simply scarier if viewers don’t know what’s coming. But the true test of a well-constructed movie comes when there are no surprises left. At the end of its 102-minute run time, with its secrets laid bare, Barbarian still has so much to offer. And part of that is something for viewers to be scared of beyond its initial ominous portrait of the quiet terror that can lurk inside a house when two strangers are forced together on a dark and stormy night.

Written and directed by Zach Cregger (formerly of the sketch comedy group The Whitest Kids U’ Know), Barbarian starts off simple enough. Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb in the outskirts of Detroit, where she discovers it’s been double-booked and that a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already staying there. Stuck in a storm with no other options readily available and an important job interview in the morning, Tess makes the risky decision to stay the night.

[Ed note: While this review preserves most of the movie’s surprises, some minor setup spoilers follow.]

Tess is a great modern horror-movie protagonist — doe-eyed but not naive, a guarded but kind young woman who just wants to land a good job and go back to wherever she’s from. Her bad decisions — the kind every horror protagonist has to make, from staying in the house to exploring its depths — mostly stem from her kindness and wanting to believe the best about others.

Keith peeking out of an open door in the horror movie Barbarian Photo: 20th Century Studios

Keith, to his credit, is aware of how all this looks. He’s savvy enough to know that Tess has no reason to trust him, and every reason to expect the worst. And he tries to ameliorate that awareness by going out of his way to make sure she’s as comfortable as she can be. There’s nothing he can really do, though; the weight and history of too many women threatened by too many men hangs heavy in a situation like this, and casts a shadow over Barbarian as a whole. Even as Keith continually attempts to put Tess at ease, she — and the audience — can never really trust him. (Even if Skarsgård sans makeup isn’t recognizable as the man who played Pennywise in the recent It movies, the unsettling energy is still there, and put to good use.)

This is where Barbarian begins: as a suspenseful tale about two strangers forced to ride out a storm together, told from the perspective of a woman who must constantly worry whether the man she’s sharing a house with is dangerous. Even with the modern Airbnb spin, this is classic horror-movie stuff, enough to support a quick-and-dirty exploitation film. But Cregger merely uses the premise as a foundation for something more ambitious, delivering a lean, surprising film with effective thrills, while also giving viewers plenty to contemplate afterward.

No filmmaker makes any decision lightly, but every creative choice made in Barbarian is astoundingly well-calibrated in a way that rewards close watching, while also not detracting from a more casual, thrill-seeking experience. From its Detroit setting — initially arbitrary, but eventually given reasons beyond aesthetic decay — to the sharing-economy snafu that gives the film its initial premise, there’s a methodical execution of setup and subversion that’s just subtle enough to shift away from what viewers might expect. Still, it’s never so dramatic that Barbarian ends in a wildly different place from where it began.

Tess stands atop a staircase leading to a dark basement in the horror movie Barbarian. Photo: 20th Century Studios

That’s the film’s greatest strength: For all its twists and turns, Barbarian is more a movie about recontextualizing what’s on screen than about big reveals. Its script never calls attention to that dynamic, but it is constantly toying with viewer sympathies. It quietly poses questions, goading the audience into defending their assumptions at every turn. Is Tess in danger from Keith? Are they both in danger from the house? If they are, whose fault is that? Does it matter whether you think they’re good people? Is your gendered view of the world warping your perception?

Barbarian’s visual simplicity gives the mind freedom to wander. The Airbnb home Tess and Keith are in is dingy and dimly lit. With a little grace and imagination, the house doesn’t even look that bad — but why would anyone watching a horror film be that gracious? Especially when presented with the familiar iconography it hides, from a seemingly endless dark tunnel to a rooms that looks like something horrible happened there.

These are familiar images, and Barbarian uses them as fuel for speculation that fills the first viewing with dread, and orients further viewings around the characters. While Tess, Keith, and the few others they encounter are archetypal, they aren’t blank slates in a nondescript nightmare town. They’re characters visiting Detroit for a reason, and the history of that city — and its late-20th-century turn toward decay, as it was abandoned by a wealthy white community that could no longer mold it to their idyllic middle-class vision — is an unspoken weight on the film and its horror. Like Skarsgård and Campbell, who deftly convey quiet shifts in the energy of a scene with the smallest facial expressions, Cregger’s camera reminds viewers of Barbarian’s setting with small, careful shifts, gesturing at the whole of a place by carefully regarding a narrow slice.

This is where Barbarian transcends its secrets. Twisty stories are hard to calibrate for; knowing a film has one or more hard left turns coming can goose expectations, which are often rooted more in what any given viewer wants, not in the storytellers’ ultimate goals. Barbarian’s shifts, fortunately, are subtler and scarier. As the film sinks deeper into the house it begins in, its best trick is one of the oldest in cinema. Cregger makes sure the biggest scares are in your head, and in what you might learn about where your sympathies ultimately lie.

Barbarian debuts in theaters on Sept. 9.

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