If your idea of fun is trying to figure out what the hell you’re watching, Barbarian will be a blast. Opening only in theaters this weekend, the horror movie, from writer/director Zach Creggers, previously of The Whitest Kids U Know comedy troupe and later an actor in various forgettable sitcoms, starts out as a stylish, genuinely creepy horror movie, only to slowly evolve into something resembling Malignant, last year’s Evil Siamese Tumor movie so weird and silly that the internet couldn’t help but love it.
Barbarian may not quite have Malignant‘s level of schlocky panache (few directors can match James Wan in that department), but the fact that Malignant is my only point of comparison feels like an achievement on its own. Barbarian is so consistently perplexing it gave me frown lines I’ll have forever.
Maybe it’s best not to know that Barbarian was written and directed by a comedy guy. I certainly didn’t going in, and there’s nothing overtly comedic about it. In the beginning, there’s nothing even conceptually comedic about it, it’s just a genuinely creepy horror movie. Georgina Campbell plays Tess, a prototypical brainy ingenue who has come to Detroit for a job interview. When she arrives at her AirBnB on a prototypical dark and stormy night, she finds the door locked and there’s a man inside. They come to find that the rental has been double-booked, and the property manager isn’t around to help straighten things out.
She’s wary of the man, naturally, but it’s late, pouring rain, and there’s a convention in town clogging all the hotels (in Detroit? come on), so she doesn’t have many options. The guy, Kevin, played by Bill Skarsgard, urges her to just come in from the rain until they can work things out. He seems nice enough, doing everything he can to put her at ease. Then again, he’s Bill Skarsgard, the clown from IT. Those big doe eyes are always threatening to go buggy and start swimming around their sockets, chameleon-like, at any second.
Tess and Kevin get on okay and Tess makes it through the night, but when she opens the door in the morning, seeing the neighborhood in the daylight for the first time, she finds that the house seems to be the only inhabited dwelling for miles, smack in the middle of one of the Detroit area’s abandoned suburbs. And it’s completely abandoned; overgrown and crumbling, like something you’d find near Chernobyl.
Is this not the perfect setting for a horror movie? Why is there this one seemingly nice, vaguely Scandinavian guy in the only occupied house for miles? Is he fellow victim or predator?
It’s a believable enough premise, and it feels like the perfect pregnant metaphor for about 100 different stories. Will it be about the death of manufacturing? The facelessness of the tech economy? About gentrification, “sacrifice zones,” the crumbling of empire, the prototypical Death of the American Dream?
So many poignant options are on the table, but just when you think you’re going to hurt your brain trying to figure out which one Cregger is going to go for, he opts for something much, much stupider and hurts your brain even more. It doesn’t feel like a success, exactly, but it’s so over-the-top strange that you almost have to respect it.
Just when this story about a double-booked Air BnB in a ghost town paints itself into a corner, Cregger bookends it and starts what at first seems like a whole new one, starring Justin Long as an actor who gets #MeToo’d right on the cusp of his big break. This is another teasing premise (if a less obviously horror-centric one) that you could imagine Cregger taking a number of different ways.
Instead, Cregger just sort of smooshes his storylines together in the dumbest, shlockiest way possible. Normally that kind of thing would be a disappointment, and in Barbarian it sort of is, but it’s also a film that’s so stupid and shlocky that it just becomes entertaining in a different way. It shifts almost seamlessly from the tension of “what is going to happen” to “what the fuck are you doing?”
Just when you think Barbarian can’t get any sillier or further from the promise of its intriguing premise, it does, in a way I had to sort of begrudgingly respect. It feels like Zach Cregger really had something here and couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it and then just started flailing. But that flailing is so transparent and unabashed that it’s almost a kind of performance art.
Does that make this a rave or a pan? I don’t really even know myself. So go see Barbarian. I couldn’t tell what the hell it is, and I still don’t know why it’s called “Barbarian.”