Barbarian: Modern Horror Masterpiece or Rental House Rubbish? 


As the Halloween season came and went, I found myself severely deprived in the spooky department. To me, current horror is subject to one universal pitfall: an overreliance on the shock factor. Whether it be from springing jump-scares with shrill music queues or a bombardment of appalling images, modern horror hasn’t scratched a certain itch for me since The Witch in 2015. I must say, I was skeptical upon reading a synopsis of Zach Cregger’s Barbarian. The presumed setting of the film being an AirBnB was almost too contemporary, to a jarring extent. Portraying what seemed to be an all too real situation, I expected this to be the next Unfriended; wherein the world is given some horrific twist in 2022. This expectation of mine carried over for the first thirty minutes of Barbarian. However, this was a false sense of security that was laid masterfully for the viewers. Barbarian preys upon a seasoned horror viewer’s expectations of what a horror movie should be. 

To say this movie successfully subverted my expectations is an understatement. Once the main arc of the plot takes off, the foot is not taken off the gas. I would do a disservice to anyone by giving exact information on where the story goes once it gets deeper than the humble rental home. The pacing pushed along the audience in an unsettling way; once the main inciting action takes off, there are minimal breaks given to allow the audience to recover from one startling moment to the next. The resolution of the story is perhaps where the action-packed pacing takes the forefront, as the tension almost slows to a halt, before abruptly speeding into high gear to reach the final conclusion. 

The performances in Barbarian are the solid emotional heart of this film, as to be expected from an A24. Georgina Campbell gives an outstanding performance as Tess, a wonderfully refreshing protagonist. She is incredibly bright and logical in navigating the terrifying circumstances of her situation. Everything from taking logical precautions to “McGyvering” solutions to problems, Tess is the antithesis of most horror movie heroes. Bill Skarsgård also delivers a masterclass in a more subdued uncomfortably than his other horror roles. 

Barbarian has some wonderfully done cinematography. Wide shots that are angled to cover multiple rooms of the house at once really stand out, showing action happening in multiple places at once. The use of light and darkness is also of note here, as it uses what the audience can see (and more importantly, what we can’t see) to amazing effect. Horror movie staples of shaky, handheld cameras are used tastefully without an overreliance on them to stir fear in the audience. Later in the film, there is a very interesting shot done in the first person, perhaps the most cinematically interesting shot of the entire film. The sound design here is also of note. The sound mixing was especially striking as the title card showed; a cacophony of screams, some of terror and others of glee. 

Perhaps my greatest hope for the film is the presence of some of its themes, or the unfortunate lack of them. Below the surface of being a quite nuanced and aware horror movie, I see some sort of bigger dialogue on a variety of political issues. Reagan-Era politics seems to be the greatest motif of the film, surprisingly. Barbarian attempts to make this clear through multiple means, but all come up as half-measures: it shows the problem of 1980s conservative economics without really building a message from them. Most of the horror of this film, ironically, was caused by this invisible force, but I wish we could see how the problems are actually pertinent to our current-day protagonists. Perhaps my view is spoiled by creators like Jordan Peele, who can effectively weave terror into a portrayal of our political landscape. 

Overall, I would suggest you give this movie a watch. I intentionally have to limit how much of the plot of the movie I discuss, because so much of the effect comes from seeing it with no expectations. There’s something brilliant about that for certain, as I found myself gripped on the first watch. However, with secondary and tertiary viewings, I began to lose interest, as there wasn’t much actual substance behind the twists and turns.