Just like jelly beans, Nyquil, and scented erasers, everyone has a favorite flavor of horror. Mine are coconut, cherry, grape and “Oh God. Oh no. This absolutely He’s going out that door in the corner. Moron. Run, you absolute fool. That last one, of course, being my favorite Nyquil.
Ever since Jordan Peele came out, the creepy flavor of the day is “slow-burn with a social conscience.” That is my second favorite Nyquil. It is also No the standard to which all horror films must be held. “Barbarian” is no more “Get Out” than “The Untouchables” was “The Godfather” or “The Batman” is “Seven”. Doing a sillier, simplistic riff on pompous stuff can still be a good time, and “Barbarian” is a good time. It’s not that nobody in the movie has a great time, just to be clear. Writer/director Zach Cregger’s feature debut is an hour and 37 minutes of tension above the scares, of flourishes without sacrificing style for substance, of disgusting, disgusting, and very bad things that are disgusting, disgusting, and very bad. Unfortunately, it is also an hour and 42 minutes long…
Never trust any reviewer who avoids writing a detailed synopsis on the pretext that “the less you know, the better.” Still, when it comes to “Barbarian,” the less you know going in, the better! This isn’t because the twists are shocking, but because doing so puts you in the same frame of mind as Tess (Georgina Campbell), who is about to embark on a zero-star travel experience. She ends up double booking an Airbnb with the clown from “It” (Bill Skarsgård). Presumably furious that she got the Skarsgård a little less down, Tess reluctantly agrees to spend the night there anyway. This is mainly because she is in a part of Detroit locals probably call “Nuh Uh”.
Cregger’s description of Detroit is… cruel. Unlike the way both the original and the remake of “Candyman” carefully weaved inner-city Chicago themes into their narratives, “Barbarian” moves forward with “Detroit is bad now.” He politely mentions Motown-adjacent things and lightly mentions something about artists bringing the place back to life. But mostly it’s ugly post-suburban nightmare fuel. Regardless, Tess checks out the basement of her rental house in the dilapidated neighborhood and finds the aforementioned gross, disgusting, and very bad things.
The last 5 minutes play out as if Creggers got tired of having to rewrite the ending and just said “Here, you do it” to a guy going on a Nyquil spree. Somehow, surprisingly, doesn’t this screw everything up? It’s more like watching a gymnast break her ankle trying to dismount after a glorious routine. It’s hard to watch, but you feel a strange sympathy rather than anger. Because what came before is a fabulously grotesque and twisted thriller that builds on the old moral standpoint of the horror genre:
“That not the real monster. That is the real monster.” -Mary Shelley
“Barbarian” has a uniquely fantastic score by Anna Drubich, which sounds like an unearthly tentacle playing a synthesizer. It has Zach Kuperstein cinematography that is almost always poorly lit but somehow always clearly decipherable. Justin Long uses possibly the best since he was a smooth-talking Macintosh computer. It’s a very specific kind of slimy horror and an absolute treasure for those who enjoy being covered by that movie.
Grade = A-
Other critical voices to consider
Kofi Outlaw at ComicBook.com says, “Cregger built his descent into the insane and macabre with the confidence of a horror connoisseur in gauging how each moment will play out for the crowd.”
Montilee Stormer of Movie Reelist says, “Fans of ruin porn will delight in the film’s setting, Brightmoor Neighborhood, known for its lack of residents and overabundance of charred shells and naked decay. It is interesting to note, however, that while Barbarian is set in Detroit and some scenes were filmed in the city, the neighborhood is a Bulgarian fabrication.”
Rachel Leishman of The Mary Sue says, “Very often that fear of existing alone is rooted in horror stories of what happened to a single woman, and ‘Barbaro’ highlights that in multiple ways that I hope will leave audiences with a sense of pause as they leave the theater.