Zach Cregger joins the league of comedians-turned-horror-filmmakers, waltzing in with Barbarian (2022) – a film brimful with potent ideas, crazy twists, and stellar performances all around.
One of the most sneaky ways to design a horror movie is to take an absurd – however still likely to happen – situation and push pedals to the floor. Back in the day of slashers, this used to be a trope of a group of 20-somethings who either barked at the wrong tree or got mixed up in some hillbilly savagery. Zach Cregger’s Barbarian (2022) takes a swing at the dangers of home rentals. While he’s not the first filmmaker in that terrain, his work surpasses most other entries and it’s no wonder this is one of the best scary films of the year.
Tess, played by the impressionable Georgina Campbell, arrives late into the night at a place she rented. It’s raining cats and dogs, and the suburbs of Detroit look rather menacing, so she’s in a hurry to cozy up inside. Cregger’s initial premise – what he described as the first thought that led to making Barbarian (2022) – was to create a film about female-male interactions and how many red flags can be checked. Hence Tess arrives at the scene of an unprecedented event of double booking. Upon knocking on the door, she meets Keith (Bill Skarsgård) – just as confused, woken in the middle of the night by a stranger. After a short exchange of information and a whole lot of weighing their options, Keith and Tess decide that the latter should spend the night in the house. Talk about the red flags, right?
Cregger indulges us in a game of charades. Reading into the true intentions of Skarsgård’s character becomes the axis around which Barbarian (2022) orbits around in this opening segment, yet Cregger smartly weaves in the rental setting too. Tess knows that something about that house’s fishy, and it’s easy to pin it down to the guy she just met. By accident, however, she finds a rope sticking out of the wall in the basement. When pulled, the string reveals a secret door; from now on, things only get more wicked and weird.
Where most directors would most likely put the brakes, relishing the cliched idea of a victim captured in the net of a psycho, Cregger only warms up. And that’s what makes Barbarian (2022) a standout. Approaching the form and narrative style with an open mind allows Zach Cregger to shift timelines, change screen ratios and look at the situation from more than one perspective.
That other perspective is the one of AJ (Justin Long), an actor whose path to stardom crushes in an instant when he’s accused of sexual abuse. Despite the boatloads of Justin Long’s charm and charisma, AJ isn’t a guy we necessarily root for, because to be frank – he’s an egocentric douchebag. Yet the way he’s brought into all this masquerade is a perfect trigger for Barbarian (2022) to further evolve and catch just another angle to broaden the story’s meaning. Also, it’s an opportunity for Zach Cregger to lighten up the mood before going really, really dark.
The perfect phrase to describe the kind of terror that unravels in Barbarian (2022) is incremental, with occasional reroutes. Across the tight 90+ minutes of its runtime, this slick horror movie switches gears multiple times, and with each shift, Barbarian (2022) becomes more frightening. For this to work, Cregger relies heavily on all the cinematic weaponry at hand he and his team can conjure up.
Like in many modern horror movies, camerawork and lighting play critical roles in this spectacle. Zach Kuperstein’s deep understanding of perspective becomes a paramount method for Barbarian (2022) to evoke fear. Combined with impeccable use of light and shadows, Kuperstein creates an ominous atmosphere of secrecy and unknowing when Tess and Keith uncover the house’s sub-terrain levels, along with other revelations hiding in the shroud of darkness. However, he also makes a peculiar sense of peeping holism in a short sequence that finds Richard Brake’s character – a pretty nasty guy – going from casually shopping to a full-on creep.
Setting aside all of the technicalities, Barbarian (2022) is, first and foremost, an extremely entertaining horror film. Its uncanny twists – though destined to be ferociously criticized by some viewers – distinguish the movie from the rest. Although not entirely without its flaws, Cregger’s horror debut proves that genre filmmaking becomes a ground to experiment and be playful when it’s liberated from tropes and rigid frames. Cregger’s playground is hilarious, inventive, and haunting- qualities fans should cherish.
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