Barbarian: crowdpleasing depravity gets very unsettling

Zach Cregger’s admirably tricky horror features an onslaught of stomach-turning set-pieces in a cavernous basement – and perfect cameos from Justin Long and Richard Brake.

Georgina Campbell as Tess in Barbarian (2022)

There are two kinds of horror movie protagonists: those who deserve what’s coming to them, and those who don’t. Zach Cregger’s Barbarian proudly showcases both types, and in an admirably tricky configuration. The film is essentially a series of structural fake-outs, which come at irregular intervals and keep rerouting our expectations – and sympathies – until it’s hard to remember exactly how we’ve gone from Point A to Point B.

For about thirty minutes, Cregger’s debut plays as an expert (and subtly sinister) send-up of millennial meet-cute tropes, with aspiring documentarian Tess (Georgina Campbell) discovering that her Airbnb on the outskirts of Detroit has been double-booked, with Keith (Bill Skarsgård) her unexpected new companion. Tess oscillates between smitten and suspicious: Keith is so thoughtful and chivalrous in offering Tess a cup of tea and use of the bedroom (he even does her laundry!) that he’s surely up to no good. But this well brought-up boy, whatever his intentions, turns out to be the least of Tess’s problems. The moment that a new hierarchy of threat gets established – following, of course, a chance excursion into the residence’s dilapidated and exponentially larger-than-expected basement – is when Barbarian transforms into the kind of slavering, ferocious B-movie that’s become an endangered species in the current moment of ‘elevated’ horror.

If the ensuing onslaught of stomach-turning subterranean set-pieces signal Cregger’s distance from any obviously lofty artistic intentions, he’s still working from some high-end reference points. An extended flashback sequence boldly quotes the roving camerawork of Gerald Kargl’s indelibly savage 1983 video nasty Angst, while a discarded copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre puts a wryly Gothic frame around the action. The use of Motor City as a broken-down, suburban-boneyard backdrop, meanwhile, feels borrowed from recent thrillers like It Follows (2014) and Don’t Breathe (2016), and by the final act, the script’s sense of invention has been worn to the nub. But even when the storytelling conks out, the actors do their part. Campbell evinces the weary strength and intelligence of a vintage Final Girl, while Justin Long – perfectly cast in a part whose particulars are better left unspoiled – makes for a wonderfully contemporary antihero type (he even makes flossing obnoxious). Best of all, though, is the hollow-eyed Rob Zombie favourite Richard Brake, whose brief screen time generates the kind of palpable malevolence that can make a fundamentally goofy exercise in crowdpleasing depravity feel genuinely unsettling. Without ever really raising his eyes, his voice or his pulse, Brake acts a hole through the screen; watching him is like gazing into an abyss.

► Barbarian is in UK cinemas now.