Review: ‘Barbarian’ is a gleeful homage to things that go bump in the night

An Airbnb rental mishap goes awry in a horror debut for the ages. “Barbarian” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

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Aaliya Luthra

“Barbarian” is a horror thriller that follows two strangers who booked the same Airbnb. (Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Colleen Secaur, Staff Writer

Zach Cregger’s “Barbarian” seems to be multiple films in one. Just when you think you’ve got your finger on what you’re watching, the tone, plot and pacing shifts and warps into something new. To reveal these twists would be to rob those who haven’t seen the horrified glee that makes watching the film in a packed theater so much fun.

Set in modern-day Detroit, “Barbarian” follows Tess (Georgina Campbell) when she arrives at her Airbnb and finds Keith (Bill Skarsgård), who also booked the house. He eventually convinces her — despite her better judgment — that they could share the space for a few days.

Skarsgård, best known as the killer clown Pennywise in the movie “It,” is perfectly cast here as the all-too-charmingly awkward stranger, gradually easing Tess’ suspicions while raising ours. Needless to say, when Tess finds a secret door in the basement, which leads to a network of tunnels below the house, the meet-cute portion of the movie ends, and all hell breaks loose. 

Cregger, a former member of the influential Whitest Kids U Know sketch troupe, has comedic bona fides that are used to great effect throughout the film. A subplot involving a director disgraced by sexual assault allegations — played by Justin Long, a master of horror-comedy in his own right — produced the most reliable laughs. At one point, he willfully ignores several signs of torture and bloodshed in his property’s tunnels to measure the square footage, hoping to upsell the Airbnb.

Several reviews of “Barbarian” draw parallels between the film and James Wan’s “Malignant,” which released toward the end of last year and has already achieved cult classic status due to its zany camerawork and bizarrely gory twist. The similarities between the two films aren’t entirely unwarranted; the big bad in “Barbarian” is equal parts silly and gross as the one in “Malignant.” 

The two films differ, however, in the directors’ intentions. Cregger has more on his mind than creating a throwback gore fest, toggling between the grime lurking in the basements of Detroit in the Reagan era and the brutality of the city in its present day, all while making overt statements on the #MeToo movement and gentrification. 

Not all of it works. A story beat involving a scary houseless man who ends up aiding the protagonists as the action heats up is more dated and by the numbers than it should be. Campbell, while likable and down for anything as Tess, is given little to do other than make increasingly ill-advised decisions and whimper in the last third of the film. 

Ultimately though, these are minor asides that do little to impede the enjoyment of “Barbarian.” Cregger’s love and appreciation to bygone grindhouse and pulp-horror flicks of decades past shine through with every unexpected swing of his camera and resultant bloodbath. Of course, when it comes to genre films, a loving homage can only go so far  — like the “Friday the 13th” franchise and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels. But “Barbarian” uses its foundations to become a genuinely exciting and unnerving moviegoing experience that shakes the audience to its core and doesn’t let up.

Contact Colleen Secaur at [email protected]