barbarian is a real swing for the fences. The film, which marks writer-director Zach Cregger’s solo directorial debut, is a horror mash-up that feels like a modern-day riff-on at moments The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and at other times like a loving homage to the kind of cheesy horror comedy Sam Raimi perfected. When is best when barbarian feels like it combines those influences to become a horror ride that’s simultaneously absurd and terrifying.
More than anything else, barbarian is unlike anything you’ll see in a movie theater this year. Such a remark is not always synonymous with praise. After all, uniqueness alone is not enough to save a film that would otherwise have gone haywire. In case of barbarian, but the film’s commitment to delivering a truly unpredictable and sonically challenging experience is what makes it so unforgettable. Watching it, one is not only swept away by the dramatic challenges of film history, but also by the bold, all-out creative spirit at its core.
Like all great horror movies barbarianThe plot of seems deceptively simple at first. The film begins with Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) arriving at a Detroit rental house in the middle of a rainy night, only to find the house has been double booked. When she knocks on the front door, Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgård) answers and invites her in to give her a breather from the night’s rain while they find a solution to their problem.
It’s not long before Keith offers to sleep on the house’s couch so Tess can take her only bedroom. Though initially (and understandably) reluctant, Tess agrees and later finds herself having a surprisingly comfortable, flirtatious night with Keith. The next day, however, Tess discovers a secret tunnel in the basement of the tenement that leads her straight into an absolute nightmare.
To say one more thing barbarian‘s plan would be to spoil a lot of the fun of it. The film’s early trailers and promotional materials, wisely and for good reason, showed little beyond Tess’ unnerving discovery of the secret underground passageway to her rental home. While barbarian takes her time to get the story into full swing, Tess’s discovery marks the right moment barbarian as the film’s sense of dread steadily mounts before finally reaching a moment of pure horror that is sure to have viewers both terrified and laughing in utter disbelief at what they have just seen.
From there, barbarian begins adding an increasing number of layers to his nested doll of a narrative. Not all of the film’s detours work—its attempts to satirize the state of modern Hollywood feel particularly inconsequential at times—but the episodic structure of Cregger’s screenplay remains barbarian chugs along at a refreshingly fast pace throughout Acts two and three. Cregger’s keen understanding of visual storytelling also helps preempt barbarian‘s various flashbacks and tangents from the film’s deadlock.
That is, the true nature of barbarianThe story of Cregger ultimately presents Cregger with two options: he can either immerse viewers in his full, terrifying heaviness, or he can avoid the darkness barbarian‘s backstory from becoming suffocating by venturing into his comedic impulses. Cregger wisely chooses the latter option, and while his direction never quite matches the zany visual style of a horror comedy writer like Sam Raimi, Cregger pushes it barbarian‘s undeniably chilling story to its most absurd extremes in the final act.
By choosing to inject barbarianIn the final third, with multiple doses of sheer absurdity, Cregger manages to amplify the film’s thrill and fright while dulling the impact of its darkest moments. Mixing of tones enabled barbarian to ultimately occupy a strange border space, one that appropriately exists between reality and fantasy. The film’s cast, meanwhile, all seem to understand the tone Cregger is striking barbarian. Most notably, however, Justin Long delivers a memorably funny, tongue-in-cheek supporting actress in the role barbarian‘s plot had better be left untouched.
Outside of Tess’ first dig in the film’s central underground tunnel, barbarian never really delivers memorable set pieces, preventing it from feeling like a groundbreaking genre title in the same way as, say, evil death 2. While the film’s Detroit setting feels intentional, and while Cregger’s screenplay occasionally seems interested in exploring that city’s history, barbarianThe few thematic ideas never come together completely.
However, when it reaches its perky last pinprick, barbarian has nevertheless managed to transcend its familiar influences and become a unique work. That’s a remarkable achievement for a film so clearly influenced by such specific horror titles.
barbarianNor does ‘s disinterest in achieving any sort of greater thematic relevance diminish how genuinely entertaining it is as both an unpredictable, Shyamalan-esque puzzle box and a nerve-wracking horror comedy. The film is one of this year’s most impactful experiments in genre. Unlike the clueless woman at the center of his story, horror fans won’t regret entering the strange and terrifying tunnel barbarianfull of surprises that are alternately scary and funny, but almost always unexpected.
barbarian is scheduled to hit theaters on Friday September 9th.
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