The power of a well-placed needle drop is something writer/director Zach Cregger clearly understands. After honing his chops as part of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know, which aired a sketch show for five seasons in the late aughts, Cregger has set his sights on horror. As Jordan Peele proved with aplomb, comedy and horror are two very different sides of the same coin, both using absurd premises to elicit physical reactions from their audience. For his clever horror thriller “Barbarian,” Cregger clearly took a page from the Peele playbook. With a chillingly relatable Airbnb setup, “Barbarian” mines multiple real-life scenarios and fears to unleash some truly unhinged terrors. It’s no “Get Out,” but it’s a hell of a lot of fun — with a little something to say as well.
Opening with a bang, “Barbarian” starts on the edge of sinister and barrels toward the darkness, with a few diverting rest stops along the way. The movie begins as Tess (Georgina Campbell), headed to a job interview, arrives at her Detroit Airbnb, where she’s surprised to discover an unexpected roommate in the form of suspicious charmer Keith (Bill Skarsgård). Playing on Skarsgård’s natural creepiness and icon status in contemporary horror, tension is high from the jump as Keith insists Tess not be put out by the mix-up. When she’s unable to book another place, he’s overly enthusiastic about offering her his bed and a glass of wine. He makes a big show of opening the bottle in front of her, so she won’t think he’s poisoning her.
Tess lets her guard down when she learns Keith is part of a well-known Detroit artist collective, as he explains his little Airbnb jaunt as “scouring this side of town looking for our next little nest.” Just a few glasses in, and she’s giggling up a storm as Keith playfully tosses the comforter over his head. Despite being spooked by a creaky door and Keith’s sleepy murmurings, Tess survives the night. When she drives to her job interview, she finally sees the neighborhood in the daytime. The yellow-painted house stands out amongst the derelict homes, a stark illustration of why people keep telling Tess to be careful in the neighborhood.
Alone at the house after her job interview, Tess is lured into the basement by a mysterious door that either won’t stay shut or closes on its own. Once down there, she discovers an almost comical labyrinth of hidden doors, abandoned rooms, dark hallways, and narrow staircases. Each new discovery verges on the verge of hilarious and hair-raising, as “Barbarian” narrowly walks the line between the comically absurd and absurdly terrifying. Just as she’s ready to pack her bags and run, Keith convinces her to wait while he checks it out, and it’s as unclear as ever where he stands.
But before we can find out, the movie cuts to a blood-pumping needle drop of an entirely different nature, introducing an entirely new character to start the second act. Cruising quite ridiculously to Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi” in his convertible, Hollywood actor AJ (Justin Long) is gleefully answering an important call from his team about whether his pilot got picked up. His windswept joy quickly drains from his face when he learns he’s been accused of sexual assault by his co-star, and Long delivers a one-man master class as he slowly realizes his entire life is about to go up in flames. Forced to sell his assets to pay for legal fees, he hops a plane to Detroit, where he owns a few rental properties.
Like Keith, AJ is another study in white male shiftiness, exuding movie star charisma as he reveals himself as the poster child for every toxic male trait in the book. Not only is he a rapist, he’s a landlord, an amoral gentrifier in a historically Black neighborhood who has never even set foot inside his trussed-up rental property until now. He yells rudely at the people who maintain his property, calls women “lying bitches,” and sees nothing wrong with a little coercion during sex. Every time he’s about to get what he deserves, he finds a way to let a woman take the fall.
That’s all before the unexpected third act reveal — yet another abrupt swing that earns “Barbarian” its title by dragging us into the realm of the barbaric. With all of the backstory built up, “Barbarian” has more than enough room to go full-blown horror, and its left turn of an explanation feels like icing on the cake of an already satisfying social thriller. For his bone-chilling denouement, Cregger throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, which he gets away with due to the precision and austerity of the first two acts. The finale offers more than a few jump scares and stomach-churning shocks. Though the final explanation may feel like a mish-mosh of extreme terrors, the ride is far too much fun to take issue.
“Barbarian” opens in theaters on September 9, 2022.