September 7, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Zach Cregger
Culture Representation: Taking place in Detroit and briefly in Los Angeles, the horror film “Barbarian” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Murder and mayhem ensue when a woman, who’s in Detroit for a job interview, finds out that her Airbnb-type rental house has been double-booked with a male guest, who is also staying at the house.
Culture Audience: “Barbarian” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching suspenseful slasher films that mixes formulaic plot developments wth a few surprises.
“Barbarian” falters with uneven pacing and some gaps in logic, but this slasher flick delivers the type of suspenseful mystery, jump scares and interesting characters that a horror movie should. The acting performances are better than the screenplay. If not for the performances and some clever surprises, “Barbarian” would be a very run-of-the-mill horror movie.
Written and directed by Zach Cregger, “Barbarian” is somewhat of a departure for Cregger, who is also known as an actor who does a lot of work in comedy. (He was one of the original cast members of “The Whitest Kids U’ Know,” the comedy sketch series that was on the IFC network from 2007 to 2011, after launching for a short stint on the Fuse network.) Cregger’s feature-film debut as a writer/director was the forgettable 2009 sex comedy “Miss March,” in which he co-starred with Trevor Moore, one of the other cast members of “The Whitest Kids ‘U Know.”
“Barbarian” begins with the arrival of aspiring filmmaker Tess Marshall (played by Georgina Campbell), who has traveled to Detroit, because she has a job interview to be an assistant to a semi-famous documentary filmmaker. Tess is staying at a one-bedroom house (at the address 476 Barbary) that she rented through Airbnb. And because this is a horror movie, she arrives at night when it’s raining outside.
To her surprise, Tess finds out that there’s another guest who’s already at the house, and his rental time is for the same time that she’s been booked. His name is Keith Toshko (played by Bill Skarsgård), who has arrived from Brooklyn, New York. Keith tells Tess that he booked his reservation through Home Away, an online service that’s similar to Airbnb. Keith also says that he’s part of an artist collective called the Lion Tamers Collective, and he’s in Detroit to look for living space for the group.
After Tess and Keith see that they both have confirmations for the same booking, Tess offers to leave, since Keith arrived at the house first. Tess starts to call around to find a hotel room to book, but the first place she calls doesn’t have any vacancies. Keith says that there’s a big convention happening in Detroit, so she probably won’t have much luck finding a hotel room. The movie never says where Tess lives, but it’s far enough were she had to rent a car for this trip.
There are several moments in “Barbarian” when people make less-than-smart decisions—the types of decisions where viewers might say to themselves, “I would never do that.” The first of those moments in “Barbarian” happens when Tess takes Keith’s word for it that she won’t find a hotel room, and she gives up too easily in her search to find a hotel. This is the type of questionable decision that horror movies rely on, in order to put characters in danger.
Tess then offers to sleep in her car for the night, but Keith insists that she stay in the house because the neighborhood is too dangerous for her to be sleeping in her car at night. At this point, even though Keith is friendly and polite, viewers will be wondering if Keith really is a good guy, or if he has sinister intentions for Tess. This question is answered at a certain point in the movie, but “Barbarian” does a very good job of keeping viewers guessing about what’s going to happen.
Tess then makes the fateful decision to spend the night at the house. Keith tells Tess that she can have the bedroom, while he sleeps on the couch. Because Keith is a complete stranger to Tess, as a precaution, Tess uses her phone to secretly take a photo of Keith’s driver’s license when she see his wallet on a table in the bedroom.
There’s tension in the house, but not just because of fear. After a while, there’s sexual tension, because it becomes obvious that Keith is attracted to Tess. And when Tess begins to feel more comfortable around Keith, the attraction becomes mutual. Their first night together in the house has some scares for Tess when she wakes up in the middle of the night to find out that her bedroom door, which she had closed behind her, is open.
The terror in the house doesn’t happen right away. Tess begins to trust Keith enough that she accepts his offer to share the house with him for the rest of their stay in Detroit. When Tess goes outside the house for the first time when it’s daylight, she sees that the house is the only well-kept house on a residential street that looks like a bombed-out war zone. All of the other houses on the street look like condemned, unhabitable buildings.
The street is also eerily quiet, except for a harrowing incident when a homeless-looking man on the street—Tess later finds out his name is Andre (played by Jaymes Butler)—runs after her and yells at her not to stay in the house. Tess is so frightened by this stranger, she runs into the house and locks herself inside. When she calls 911 to report the incident, the operator says that there are no police units available to go to that street.
Tess gets another big red flag when she goes to her job interview with the documentary filmmaker Catherine James (played by Kate Nichols), who asks Tess where she’s staying while Tess is in Detroit. When Tess mentions the neighborhood and that she’s staying at an Airbnb house rental, Catherine’s immediate reaction is surprise that this neighborhood has a house that meets Airbnb rental standards. Catherine is also very concenred that Tess is staying in that neighborhood, which has a bad reputation for crime, so Catherine urges Tess to be careful.
And something horrible does happen in that house. Luckily for viewers, it’s not revealed in the “Barbarian” trailer or other marketing materials. The movie avoids the pitfall of not giving away its best moments or the movie’s chief villain in the trailer. However, it’s enough to say (as shown in the “Barbarian” trailer) that there’s a long and sinister tunnel underneath the house. And lurking in that tunnel is someone identified in the movie’s credits as The Mother (played by Matthew Patrick Davis), who will definitely make viewers squirm.
Meanwhile, about halfway through the movie, “Barbarian” introduces another character who has a connection to this house. He’s a famous actor named AJ Gilbride (played by Justin Long), who lives in Los Angles. AJ is successful enough to be a steadily working actor who gets starring roles, but he’s not mega-rich. He owns some rental properties, including the house in Detroit where Tess and Keith are staying.
AJ is first seen in the story as he gets bad news from his agents: An actress named Melisa (voiced by Kate Bosworth), whom he is co-starred with in a TV pilot called “Chip Off the Old Block,” is accusing him of rape. Melisa is suing AJ because of this alleged sexual assault. AJ might also face criminal charges. AJ, who vehemently proclaims his innocence, tells anyone who’ll listen that the sex he had with Melisa was consensual.
Because of the scandal, the TV network for “Chip Off the Old Block” has decided that if the network picks up “Chip Off the Old Block” as a series, AJ will no longer be a part of the show. AJ says that he plans to countersue Melisa for defamation. His attorney advises AJ not to contact Melisa or talk to the media while the case is pending.
AJ gets more bad news when he visits his business manager, who tells AJ that AJ doesn’t have enough money to cover the cost of AJ’s legal fees. The business manager advises AJ to sell some of AJ’s property. The business manager also tells AJ that he no longer wants to work with AJ.
A desperate and despondent AJ goes to Detroit to see what he can do about selling the house that he owns at 476 Barbary. AJ has neglected the property so much, he wasn’t even aware that the property’s management company had been renting out the house to visitors for temporary stays. He’s in for a shock when he finds out what’s been going on at that house.
“Barbarian” has a flashback to the 1980s, when this Detroit neighborhood was safe, clean and well-maintained. A middle-aged man named Frank (played by Richard Brake) is seen going to a home supply store and telling a helpful sales clerk that he needs plastic sheets for a “home birth.” Viewers see that Frank is actually a bachelor, but he lets the sales clerk assume that he has a pregnant wife who will soon give birth. Frank doesn’t talk much, and there’s something “off” about him, because he acts like someone who has dark secrets.
Frank is then seen arriving unannounced at a house where a woman is home alone. He’s wearing a repairman’s uniform, and he politely tells the lady of the house that he’s from the utility company, and he needs to do an inspection. The woman lets him inside the house without hesitation. Frank then goes in the bathroom alone and unlocks the bathroom window.
After just a few minutes in the house, Frank thanks the woman resident, and he leaves the house. It’s at this point you know that Frank is going to break into the house later through that unlocked bathroom window. Who is Frank and what kind of criminal is he? Those answers are eventually revealed in the movie. This flashback scene also foreshadows that the neighborhood will go downhill when a male neighbor tells Frank that his family is moving soon because the neighborhood is “going to hell.”
“Barbarian” makes a few references to “white flight” in Detroit (when white residents moved out of certain Detroit neighborhoods because more black people were moving in) and the #MeToo movement. But these social issues don’t overwhelm the story, which remains mostly focused on the horror. “Barbarian” is an overall commentary on decay and neglect in communities, particularly in urban areas.
The characters in “Barbarian” are believable as people, even if some of their actions are illogical. For example, after Tess sees some disturbing things in the house, she stays in the house much longer than most people would. It’s very hard to believe that she can’t figure out other options on where to stay besides this creepy house.
“Barbarian” also brings up some questions that are never answered. There’s a part of the movie that shows there have been some missing people with a connection to the street where the house is. Wouldn’t any loved ones and friends be looking for these missing people? And who’s been maintaining the upkeep of the house? There’s no mention of housekeepers for this place. It’s the only house on the street that’s very neat and orderly on the outside of the building, even though the house’s front lawn looks run-down and messy.
A showdown scene near the end of “Barbarian” also doesn’t make sense on a physics level. However, the mystery of the house is plausible, as long as viewers believe the movie’s depiction that the cops in Detroit avoid this neighborhood as much as possible. “Barbarian” is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of renting a vacation home from strangers, particularly for women traveling alone. Tess obviously didn’t do enough research about the neighborhood and house where she’d be staying.
“Barbarian” writer/director Cregger (who has a cameo in the movie as a Detroit friend of AJ’s) could have paced the movie a little better, since the suspense-filled tension stops in areas where the tension should have been better-maintained. However, the movie has a talented cast, and the film delivers plenty of terrifying and ominous moments that should satisfy most horror fans. “Barbarian” is the type of horror movie where viewers shouldn’t overthink some of the details and should enjoy the terror ride for what it is.
20th Century Studios will release “Barbarian” in U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2022.