Not much is known about Barbarian beyond the fact that it stars exciting up-and-comers Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgård and that it’s set, largely, in an Airbnb, that’s (maybe) been double-booked. The trailers have been minimalist, the posters even more so. Even the title seems somewhat vague (who – or what – is the ‘barbarian’ exactly?). You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s all very much on purpose; the mystery is the selling point here, and while there’s certainly a lot to be said, and a lot that this writer wants to say, let’s keep this brief since going in as cold as possible is strongly recommended – Barbarian is the best horror film of 2022. If you’re a genre fan, you should definitely see this movie.
Written and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Zach Cregger (Miss March, The Whitest Kids U Know), Campbell stars as Tess, a young woman who arrives at her Airbnb – a small house in a quiet neighbourhood – in the middle of the night, only to find somebody else is already living there. The very polite, sweet-natured Keith (Skarsgård) has also rented the same house through a totally different website in what looks to be a classic admin cock-up. And with nowhere else to turn, Tess is forced to, at the very least, consider staying the night.
Cregger’s plot builds and builds from there, morphing from a powerful little pot-boiler into something much more ambitious and much more unusual. And as the first act comes to a screeching close, on an absolute face-melter of a “WTF?” cymbal crash, if you’re not already strapped in for a wild ride, you certainly will be from here.
Some might call Cregger’s script Hitchcockian in the way it lays out its twists; others might think of it closer in tone and shape to one of the later Resident Evil games. It’s not so much a puzzle box as it is a very insane, yet surprisingly straightforward horror, told in a mixed-up manner to maximise the impact of its reveals, and nail those all-important character beats.
It’s also a film that feels tailor-made for horror fans. Beyond some particularly gnarly gore, no one, for example, makes a stupid decision for no reason. Cregger credits Gavin de Becker’s best-selling non-fiction book The Gift of Fear as his starting point, and it’s an inspired place to build your characters from. Campbell’s Tess finds herself alone, in an empty house, with a strange man, in the middle of the night; there’s red flags a-plenty. But the way she deals with not just that situation, but every escalation that follows it, whilst not always sensible, is always rational, and always, always, always rooted in her character.
Without giving anything away, the same can be said for Cregger’s approach to practical effects and visuals too. With every new act comes a new stylistic flourish; some more deliberately jarring than others. Early on, it evokes Don’t Breathe and smartly staged thrillers. Later, it’s a no-holds-barred [Rec]-style affair. And by the time Barbarian’s played its final big bad hand, it’s safe to say that genre devotees will be very happy indeed.
Cregger’s sights are always set on maximum impact, and he does absolutely everything he needs to do to get there, whether that’s throwing us around narratively, or going all-hands-on-deck for that particularly nasty close-up. It’s just exactly the sort of insanely ballsy, mixed-up horror we’re in desperate need of; expensive-looking studio-backed nastiness that doesn’t for one second hold back. You won’t find a wilder ride this year, guaranteed.