The first half of Barbarian feels like a deconstruction of the typical home-invader horror movie trope, while the later half of the film feels more akin to a drug-induced disparate jumble of ideas that never quite stick the landing.
Despite its unevenness, Barbarian is an entertaining movie that at least kept my attention throughout its 1h 42m runtime. The film’s setup is a simple one: Tess (Georgina Campbell), a young woman staying in a sketchy derelict AirBnB rental, is forced to share the space with a peculiar yet innocuous man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård).
With the two strangers having seemingly booked their stay at the only moderately livable-looking estate in an otherwise dilapidated neighbourhood, things go from uncomfortable to downright shocking in a slow but meticulous manner that should keep audiences intrigued. Skarsgård’s portrayal of Keith stuck out to me in particular due to his uncanny ability to create awkward tension and an overall feeling of uneasiness (even without a clown getup).
In fact, Bill Skarsgård’s Keith felt weirdly familiar, with his peculiar mannerisms and insistent nature toeing the line between creepy and humorous, something that finally made sense when I looked at the director and writer of the film, Zach Cregger. This may be a deep cut for some, but Cregger’s work on the TV and Internet comedy series The Whitest Kids U’Know echoed through Barbarian’s Keith, who felt like an off-kilter role reminiscent of one of the many characters that the late Trevor Moore played in Cregger’s previous work.
Unfortunately, Barbarian takes a bit of a nose-dive in its later half when Tess accidentally locks herself in the basement and succumbs to her curiosity after discovering a secret room hidden behind a wall.
“At the risk of collapsing Barbarian in on itself from its one saving grace, its unpredictability…”
Without giving too much away, at the risk of collapsing Barbarian in on itself from its one saving grace, its unpredictability. Barbarian introduces too many elements that don’t have the time to develop into worthwhile scares, instead relying on shock value and gross-out moments that ultimately take away from the genuinely creepy atmosphere the movie took the time to build up prior.
Thankfully, Justin Long’s character, AJ, a washed-up actor facing legal trouble, brings some needed levity to the later half of Barbarian. A stand-out scene in Barbarian with Long’s character has him haphazardly measuring the hidden crawl space of the basement, completely ignoring the creepy and startling dungeon-like atmosphere, something that brilliantly captures AJ’s sleazeball nature without him uttering a single line. Sadly, by the film’s end, thanks to some unfortunate and baffling character arcs that don’t pay off, even Long’s character fails to save Barbarian from achieving greatness.
Barbarian isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen, especially for a horror film. It does a lot of things right but ultimately juggles too many ideas that muddle things, doing more harm than good. Additionally, characters outside the main cast feel paper thin and sometimes even goofy, such as the police officers who refuse to listen to a distraught Tess, in addition to everyone she reaches out to on her phone during the film who similarly are inept to the point of feeling brain dead.
Barbarian also seemingly suffers from an identity crisis, with elements found in the later end of the movie feeling like they want to be supernatural but still somehow grounded enough to be considered realistic. If you’re a fan of gross-out horror or know what a Bad Boy Bubby is, you will likely derive some entertainment from Barbarian, but for everyone else, Barbarian is better left in the Stone Age.