Dir: Zach Cregger. Starring: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long. 18, 107 minutes.
In life, every chance is really a risk. And for women, every risk is a potential danger. That’s the tension that the horror film Barbarian so expertly exploits, all before it unfurls into a chaotic monster movie that consistently turns the tables on its audience’s expectations.
Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) arrives in Detroit for a job interview, only to find a man – Bill Skarsgård’s Keith – already staying in the Airbnb she’s rented for the week. The property, somewhat suspiciously, is the only intact home in one of the city’s many abandoned stretches, a mark of its industrial decline. Placed in a vulnerable position, Tess finds even green flags start to read as red. Why is Keith so insistent that he opens the house’s bottle of welcome wine in front of her, even though she’s already declined a glass? Isn’t it an odd coincidence that he’s seen the one low-budget documentary made by the woman Tess is interviewing for? “There’s a lot of bad dudes out there,” he tells her, so sincerely. What makes him think he has the authority to tell her that? There’s a smart bit of casting here: Skarsgård is a charismatic performer, but if you didn’t already distrust him because he most famously played Pennywise the Clown in the It remake, you might distrust him because he kind of looks like a Tim Burton claymation figure come to life.
I’ll withhold from sharing any more specifics. Barbarian’s many twists are a central part of its funhouse charm. Debuting writer-director Zach Cregger, a member of the sketch comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know, has also mastered this film’s sense of space: the camera hovers at the top of staircases; it slides down corridors as if drawn to some unspoken doom; it peers around corners, steadying itself for a scare.
As a filmmaker, Cregger seems conscious of embracing and then twisting an audience’s expectations, leaning into certain tropes of the genre before forcefully pushing towards something far more realistic. Cops here don’t act like cops in the movies do. The fear of a woman’s ageing body – common in horror and inevitably laced with misogyny – doesn’t play as straightforwardly as you might think. Tess may not always make the right decisions, but she’s smart when it matters. Campbell has a great handle on Barbarian’s shifting tone, which makes room for humour without veering into a realm of outright horror-comedy.
At one point, Jeeper Creepers star Justin Long turns up as AJ Gilbride, a sitcom actor accused of sexual assault. What the film chooses to do with him, versus what we might assume it will do with him, is both surprising and smart. In all the chaos, Barbarian makes an important point: women are always left to pay for men’s cruelty.
‘Barbarian’ is in cinemas from 28 October