“Despite being formulaic, by the numbers, and cliched, Barbarian is an enjoyable little chiller that does exactly what it needs to do,” says Carl Roberts
A sleeper hit in the United States, ‘Barbarian’ is opening in the UK this weekend. And at a perfectly apt time, considering Monday is Halloween. A low-budget chiller, the film is the perfect entertainment for those who want a good scare. Tightly edited, well acted, and with a few moments of genuine terror, the film also suffers from repetition. It falls into the trap of becoming cliched, formulaic, and a paint-by-numbers horror movie. And that is a shame as there is a lot to like here. It also, around halfway, takes a detour that takes us out of the movie. Thankfully, this detour leads us back to the main story but it is slightly jarring. But the film manages to stand on its own two feet.
Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) books a remote home in a rundown neighborhood while staying in Detroit for a job interview. She is surprised to find the house is already occupied by a young man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård), who rented the property through a different app. With a storm raging outside and no hotel vacancies, Tess finds she has no option but to spend the night in the house.
Later that night, she notices her bedroom door has been opened and hears someone moving around. Later, after her job interview, Tess needs to find some toilet paper for the bathroom. Finding it downstairs in the basement, she ventures down. She discovers a secret door in the wall, which she unwisely opens and investigates inside.
Going into further detail would spoil the film for the audience. Suffice it to say, it follows the tried and tested formula of something in the basement. We find ourselves screaming out at her not to venture any further but to no avail. Events happen that we can see coming. But the film then throws us a curveball. We get to a certain point in the story, only to have the screen cut to black and find ourselves in Los Angeles two weeks later with sitcom actor AJ (Justin Long).
The film has steered us to a vital point, only to then do a complete switch and follow what appears to be a different story and plot thread. Thankfully, the threads combine but it takes us out of the film, and the fear and terror it has built up to that point.
In addition, the scares we are presented with are telegraphed, meaning that when they come, we may jump a little but are ready for them. And that is a major failing in a horror movie. We want to be surprised when the shocks and scares come. We don’t want to be waiting for them to happen, as we know they will. This lets the film down slightly but it restores itself with some nasty deaths, some genuine scares, and a great sense of unease from the outset.
And it also contains some unexpected humor along the way. Sadly, it also makes us laugh at times when it really shouldn’t. These unintended laughs spoil the film somewhat. But again, when the sense of unease and fear returns, we can forgive them.
The three main members of the cast are all enjoyable in their roles. Georgina Campbell as Tess is the character we will follow for most of the proceedings. And gives us a performance of real enjoyment. Tess isn’t some naive young woman who blindly follows things. She is a strong woman who knows the dangers that she finds herself confronting. And delivers the best laugh in the movie. It is a real surprise when she delivers a single word upon discovering the hidden door. And it makes us want to cheer. Finally, we have a female character who gets it. And a strong one too. It is a brilliant turn from Georgina Campbell. And one that deserves a place in horror movie history.
Bill Skarsgård as Keith is equally as good. Although his role is limited, Skarsgard once again delivers a performance that we can get behind. You can guess that his character is the proverbial red herring from the start. But that doesn’t distract us from actually liking him. The scenes he shares with Georgina Campbell in the first twenty minutes are pretty fun, despite almost nothing happening.
Tess does the right thing and is on her guard when she is alone with Keith. But Keith understands her reluctance to have a drink with him and encourages it to a certain extent. Again, the film plays this to perfection. And it adds a sense of reality to proceedings. Bill Skarsgard, no stranger to horror movies after playing Pennywise The Clown in the two ‘IT’ movies is a welcome addition to the cast.
Justin Long as AJ has the unenviable task of portraying the token slimeball. From the minute we meet his character, we know that we are going to completely hate him. And we do. A self-centered narcissist, we really hope to see him get his due. But Long also manages to squeeze some laughs from the character. And near the end, we find ourselves liking him more than we expect. Long is an accomplished actor and his talent shines through here once again. He comes in at around halfway and we follow him for the remainder of the film with a few shocks along the way. Long manages to put a different spin on the type of character he is playing, much to the film’s advantage.
WRITING AND DIRECTION
The film is written and directed by Zach Cregger in an accomplished solo directorial debut. Cregger knows what he is doing, where he wants his audience to be led, and to deliver a horror film that resonates. He doesn’t quite manage it, thanks to the formula he follows with his writing and the cliches that seem to affect many films of this type. But he at least tries to put a different spin on what we are seeing, even if at times it comes off as a by-the-numbers effort. The build-up to what is to come is actually enjoyable. Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgard play well off each other and that’s thanks to Cregger’s writing.
He also takes the standard horror motifs and turns them on their heads, much to the film’s success. He also wrenches a really slimy performance out of Justin Long that makes the film that much better. Cregger has a great eye for detail and these shine through in his direction. He is also served well by a genuinely fitting and masterful score by Anna Drubich. The music fits the story, the events, and the narrative to perfection.
Despite being formulaic, by the numbers, and cliched, Barbarian is an enjoyable little chiller that does exactly what it needs to do. It won’t win any awards for originality but fits into the horror genre well. It also presents us with a two-part story that we would never expect. We cut off from one story, and go into the next before they converge. Although it distracts us, it works. By the time the end credits roll, we know we have been on a rollercoaster of horror. The score and visuals help raise the film from DTV hell to a worthy theatrical experience.
For such a low-budget little horror movie, Barbarian looks like an expensive Hollywood horror movie. Every penny is up there on the screen and we can believe we are in Chicago (the film was actually shot in Sofia, Bulgaria). The visuals are worthy, and the acting is terrific (including a cameo from the legendary Richard Brake, in typical scary fashion). It is just a shame that the film, for all its successes is let down by its sticking to the tried and tested formula. If it had taken a few risks instead of playing it safe, the film would be considered a genuine horror classic in years to come. But despite its flaws, the film is a worthy and enjoyable tale that will have you thinking twice about booking a stay in a house online. And is great fun.
“Barbarian” will be released in UK cinemas this Friday by 20th Century Studios.
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Carl Roberts is the News Editor of The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force frequently!