Zach Cregger’s “Barbarian” is an unexpectedly strong addition to the relatively dead landscape of cinema we have been experiencing for the last few months. Other than “Nope,” which was moderately successful, there haven’t been any major releases since early May. This summer’s box office total ends at a paltry $3.4 billion — and summer totals have been below $4 billion only once from 2007-2019. Theaters are closing all over the country, driven partly by a dearth in movie releases coupled with decreased turnout. September has been no exception. This past Labor Day weekend, traditionally a decent weekend for films, had two of its largest domestic box office totals coming from “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Top Gun: Maverick,” both old releases. “Spiderman” released last December and “Top Gun” last May. Evidently, the release of a film like “Barbarian” came at the perfect time. “Barbarian” tells the story of Tess Marshall, portrayed by Georgina Campbell, who is a documentary researcher traveling to Detroit for a few days for a job interview. The film begins with her being excited in a car in front of her Airbnb, located in a run-down area of the city. From the start, her plan goes awry. She learns that the rental property was double-booked, and the other tenant, Keith, played by Bill Skarsgård, is already in the house. After persuasion from Keith, who appears concerned for her, she makes the worst decision anyone can make in a horror film: trusting strangers. What happens after this point is not suitable to include in a review, lest I risk spoiling the film.
With that aside, this film is a thrilling experience. For horror fans, “Barbarian” is nothing new. Many of the situations Tess finds herself in are things we have seen before. However, the twists and turns the director shows us make the film enjoyable and engaging. The imagery presented to the viewer is unsettling and distasteful, but it is precisely that uncomfortableness that makes the experience enjoyable. Good horror films are like roller coasters in that they are simulated experiences intended to create a sense of temporary risk and fear. When you leave the cinema, or the ride, you feel exhilarated. “Barbarian” accomplishes that effect. For those that usually avoid horror films, I would advise them to watch this film as well. It is a good introduction into the world of horror: simple fun meant to provide a thrill. This is not a Jordan Peele film. There aren’t any deep moral arguments in this project, nor are there difficult themes to grasp. The heroes and villains of the story are clear. Cregger delivers a film that lacks the tiring complexity commonplace in today’s Marvel-driven cinema of multiverses and time travel. Frankly, its simplicity is refreshing.
“Barbarian,” however, is not perfect. The decisions Tess makes are annoyingly predictable and illogical. Sometimes the pacing is confused and strange, with certain scenes unsuitably long, but these issues do not affect the overall quality of the film. “Barbarian” is low budget fun that does not try to be a cinematic masterpiece. It will shock and scare you, and in that fear, you can forget your life for a short while and experience the off-the-wall insanity Zach Cregger presents.